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February 20, 2004

UT subUrbia melds great acting and 7-Eleven

You should see subUrbia—director Caitlin Doughty's take on a mid-90s play by Eric Bogosian. You've already missed one opportunity; only tonight and tomorrow night remain. I don't think I can recommend a University Theatre production more highly than this one.

Bogosian has built his career on his depictions of people who are fearful and anxious but often do not have the tools to communicate these emotions in a way that will help make sense of things—either for them or those they interact with. subUrbia is no exception to this predilection of Bogosian's.

The play follows a group of 20-something's over the course of an evening as they hang out on the corner in front of the town's 7-Eleven. Friends since high school, it is apparent that the group's current life is largely focused around the time they spend together on the corner. On the whole, they are "going nowhere," as someone from an older generation might say. They also resemble some of the characters from Kevin Smith's Clerks (released the same year as subUrbia) in their affinity for hanging out at a convenience store and talking about various matters of the utmost importance.

Tim (third-year Paul Dichter) has managed to engineer an honorable discharge for himself from the Air Force by cutting off the tip of his finger while on kitchen duty. Now he does little but nurse his burgeoning alcoholism and berate most everyone for most everything. His best friend, Jeff (second-year Justin Stankiewicz), lives at home, has taken one class at community college, and calls himself "fucking alienated." Early on, he rails against his friends' callousness—as well as their ignorance of their own privilege—to the owner of the 7-Eleven, saying, "It's the end of the world, man. No hope, no future. Things are fucked up and no one cares."

Soon Tim, Jeff, and Buff (first-year Eric Jacobsen, who strongly reminds me of Jason Mewes as Jay in Clerks) are joined at the corner by BeeBee and Sooze, Jeff's girlfriend. If the group has any purpose at this point it is awaiting the arrival of Pony, a high school friend of Sooze who has since become a successful musician (he's toured with Coldplay, we're told). Sooze is excited to see him, but Jeff, feeling some competition between himself and Pony for Sooze's affections, is less than giddy with anticipation. Tim, of course, reacts to the prospect of Pony's presence with his de facto bitterness (when asked by BeeBee if he's seen Pony's new video on MTV, Tim replies, "I shot my TV.")

Sooze (played by second-year Fleming Ford) is the only one of the group with any sort of serious ambition. Inspired by a "site-specific performance studies instructor" at the community college, she is planning on moving out of town soon and heading to art school in New York City. We're first introduced to her as she practices a performance piece ("Burger Manifesto: Part I—The Dialectical Exposition of Testosterone") in front of her friends. Wearing a torn shirt with "cunt" written on it and a baby blue bra peeking through, Ford is absolutely mesmerizing while performing this piece, and she makes it her own entirely. I commented on the lamentable lack of lines she had in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail in these pages during the last quarter. Given a larger character to develop in Doughty's production, Ford shines each moment she's on stage.

Once Pony (transfer student Philip Marino) arrives with his fancy-shmancy publicist Erica in tow, tensions in the group escalate. Jeff feels marginalized by the dynamic between Sooze and Pony; Tim spouts his usual vitriol; and Buff hits on Erica. Tim sums up Erica (second-year Anna Scholin) in one fell swoop, telling her everything about who she is. Watching the two actors enact this power play is quite fascinating.

The chemistry between Marino and Ford's characters is arguably even more powerful. The actors manage to communicate that what's between Pony and Sooze is not just sexual tension but the possibility of something more—of an understanding. Sooze tells him, "I hate it here. It's like being dead. I just want to go…away." Pony stands in stark contrast as someone who has managed to escape the grip of suburbia and become successful.

Meanwhile, Tim is trying to cajole Jeff into taking charge and actually doing something instead of always being afraid to take any one course of action. Although Tim is a monolithic character, Dichter makes him startlingly believable. Because Bogosian characters are frequently caricatures to some extent, it can be hard to make them watchable, but Dichter triumphs as Tim and he is a joy to watch. BeeBee (first-year Sarah Agor) and Buff remain largely undeveloped characters throughout the play. Agor plays BeeBee as an "I'm-so-troubled-by-my-past-that-I-distance-myself-from-everything" type, but even when we learn some details of her "deep dark past," it's hard to bring ourselves to care, since we get so little else from her. Buff comes off as a guy whose main interests are smoking weed and eating Domino's.

Doughty directs the cast skillfully, and second-years Faheem Jaffer and Sara Kanwal Rezvi do well in their roles as the immigrant owners of the 7-Eleven. The set design by Meredith Ries and the inclusion of music from the likes of OutKast, Joy Division, and the Smiths add to the realism of the situation.

Because the characters are not supposed to be artful in expressing their thoughts, the dialogue often seems startlingly trite (Sooze tells Jeff, for example, that "at least I have a point of view. At least I stand for something."). The group is disquieted by Americana—the peacefulness the suburbs imply does not resonate with them—but they are hard-pressed to convey this without resorting to drugs, drinking, or violence.

Ultimately, the play tells us, this inability to emote will likely spell their downfall, as it does for BeeBee. As the proprietor of the 7-Eleven wails at the play's conclusion: "You people are so stupid! What is wrong with you?! You don't know! Throw it all away! You throw it all away! What do you think is going to happen? Oh, God. Oh, God."

Don't go see subUrbia looking for a great play. Go see it because it offers the chance to see an amazing display of student acting talent. I was blown away by that alone.