To many, modern art is all about provocation. That was the case with gonzo journalist and novelist Hunter S. Thompson, whose booze- and drug-fueled rants were the stuff of popular legend for decades before he committed suicide last week. Trailing along in Thompson's wake is Eric Bogosian, a theatrical provocateur who, for more than 20 years, has been writing and performing such solo shows as Talk Radio, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and the recent Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. A Bogosian show usually presents a rogue's gallery of marginal characters in a string of raucous monologues that critique American society. One of Bogosian's early pieces, Drinking in America, is now in revival at the Sol Theatre Project in Fort Lauderdale. This rant and rave from the 1980s, which focuses on the addictions and obsessions of Americans across many social strata, is still funny and acerbic, but its social observations have lost much of their sting over the years. As a result, Drinking now seems more an exercise in sound and fury than substance.
Sweet (left) and Gibbons: Street drunk, traveling salesman, Quaalude-fueled New Yorker -- all riffing together
Presented through March 13 by the Sol Theatre Project.
Some of the text seems more than a little trite. In one skit, a wired movie producer in Hollywood keeps putting a caller on hold while he snorts lines of cocaine for breakfast. In another, a hopped-up panhandler uses praise and flattery to cajole an audience member to cough up some money. In still another, a smug, scotch-drinking professional ticks off the little successes in his life with a disquieting urgency that suggests all is not well beneath. The underlying idea, that Americans of all walks of life medicate their underlying dis-ease, implies an overarching social critique. But instead of offering some connective argument, Bogosian falls back on vague references to capitalism and spiritual poverty. The idea, apparently, is that the audience must connect these scattered dots of message into some cohesive pattern; despite Bogosian's gifts with language and characterization, though, the basis of the idea is muddled and ill-considered.
If Drinking is more a talent showcase than substantive theater, at least the talent is engaging. The Sol production takes this solo show and divides it between two actors, a decision that helps add some welcome variety. Jim Gibbons and Jim Sweet, who made a fine pair of tramps in the Sol's solid production of Waiting for Godot last season, again bring their gonzo goofball sensibilities to this tag-team event. Gibbons has a sly, world-weary style and serves a string of nicely etched cameos. He starts off smartly as a street drunk who conjures a detailed reverie of luxury, limos, and lovely ladies. He's also terrific as a lonely traveling salesman chatting with a hooker in a hotel room and a persuasive preacher whose critique of societal collapse turns into an exhortation to righteous violence. He's balanced by the harder-edged, tightly wound Sweet, who's hilarious in a wild tale of a New Yorker's booze- and Quaalude-fueled road trip that ends in disaster. He also scores as an immigrant restaurateur who's obsessed with work. But Sweet, who co-directed the production with Robert Hooker, often comes across as more calculated than Gibbons, who provides more character details. All three are credited with the ominous, bleak set design, a looming, gray stone wall that suggests both an urban street and a subterranean cavern.
While this production has merit, it's not nearly as satisfying as many past Sol projects, and the question arises as to why Hooker and company opted for this particular script. In a season in which several theaters seem to be serving decidedly so-so material, questions arise as to what is in store for the Sol troupe and, by extension, South Florida theaters in general. Over the past several years, a number of new companies, the Sol included, have moved from mere survival to a measure of stability. But many of these companies are focused on the same type of theater, so-called "edgy, contemporary plays," the availability of which is in increasingly short supply. At some point, the Sol and other local companies may be forced to expand the scope of their dramatic sources beyond recent New York hits, making room for commissioned scripts on specific topics, reinvented classic texts, or translations from contemporary plays from other countries. This evolution may well be painful but is most likely necessary as the crowded South Florida theater scene keeps maturing.