Some critics have dismissed Eric Bogosian's 1986 play Drinking in America as outdated and irrelevant. But until there are no broken, distorted attempts to reconcile one's failures with the brutal but elusive expectations of the American Dream, the monologue-driven play will ring true.
In Balagula Theatre's season opener in its new space at the Farish Theater, Adam Luckey deftly portrays 12 fully fleshed out characters from wildly diverse cross sections of American society.
But they all have something in common.
Is it drinking? Well, sort of. But not really. It is true that many of the characters have a bottle practically glued to their hands: a beer bottle, a whiskey bottle, some bottle in a bag we can't see. And it's not just booze they're into. Some prefer acid, cocaine, marijuana, Quaaludes or heroin.
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In the play's brief opening monologue, Journal, a young college student trips on acid at his parents house, hears the doorbell ring, opens it — naked — to find a beautiful young woman standing there. He invites her in and they have an awkward, creepy moment. The young woman flees and the boy has the epiphany that she just wasn't ready for the power of their connection, that he must be irresistible to women. He also decides the best thing to do is to drop out of college and move to Portland, Ore.
In his case, as in many of the monologues, alcohol or drugs are ways of coping with discontent but which themselves elevate the character's fantasies of themselves over objective reality. So, in the college dropout's case, he fancies himself as a charming Romeo who is ready to go adventuring, but in truth, he has probably seriously derailed his life.
Another jarring example of the disconnect between fantasy and reality is the monologue Our Gang, in which Luckey portrays a rough-around-the-edges New York guy with a PBR in his hand who recounts a wild night of partying. He animatedly tells a story that involves alcohol, marijuana, Quaaludes and LSD. In the course of the storytelling, the audience comes to understand that there is a gruesome disconnect between what the character thinks happened (an epic night of partying) and what really happened: stolen cars, extreme physical assault of three innocent people (one of whom may have died), destruction of property and more. And yet the members of the "gang" don't see themselves as criminals at all but rather experience a kind of sublime bond that is jarring in its ignorance of the pain of others.
Luckey's ability to shift characters so quickly is impressive, as is the energy he must sustain for the duration of the evening, particularly in high-octane monologues like The Law, which features a fire-and-brimstone preacher who blames all of society's ills (as he sees them: homosexuals, AIDS, etc.) on Satan and ends his sermon with a call to violence.
The preacher character is one example of a few monologues in which the drug of choice is not literally alcohol or drugs but some kind of obsessive thought or idea. In the monologue Melting Pot, the metaphorical drug is work. Work all the time, at all costs. That's how you become an American.
There is even a guy with "no problems." Having realized the American Dream — good job, happy marriage, good kid, great neighborhood, mortgage paid off early — there is still something that haunts him. Turns out, realizing that dream may not be that fulfilling. There is something else we are supposed to be doing or experiencing, but none of these characters have the answer. Some have given up trying.