You may recognize him as Captain Danny Ross from Law & Order: Criminal Intent or from his appearances in films directed by Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and Atom Egoyan. But Eric Bogosian is also a playwright, novelist and historian.
He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Talk Radio, a play he wrote and starred in back in 1987. The following year, Bogosian also starred in a film adaptation from Oliver Stone that was shot right here in Dallas.
Between 1980 and 2000, Bogosian created six major solo shows with extended runs Off-Broadway, including classic subversive works like Drinking in America and Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll. Each show featured several high-energy monologues from coarse characters.
Over the years, Bogosian offered his unique brand of social commentary with about a hundred different monologues. He will deliver selections from these monologues for four shows in Dallas this week, with each night featuring a varied arrangement from his repertoire.
You haven’t toured outside of New York City in fifteen years, right?
Yeah, I actually don’t do these shows anymore. I pretty much hung up my cleats about fifteen years ago.
How are things going as you prepare to return to such high-energy performances? Is it like getting a punk rock band back together?
(Laughs.) Certainly that’s the part of it that I’m cautious about. It’s not so much, Can I do it? I’m actually better at them than I used to be. I remember watching George Carlin in his sixties doing his shows and thinking, Hell, if he can still kick it that hard I can still kick it that hard. It’s more that as I looked older I just thought it would look weird and also I had other things to do. It’s hard to explain. I’ve been offered to do these shows on Broadway and do a real run and I just think it’s antithetical to the spirit of them. I like this idea of coming in kamikaze: Prepare the show, do it, and then go away. And this Dallas thing kind of came in out of the blue.
But to answer your question, I think of it more in terms of sports. There are some things you get better at as you get older, Peyton Manning is a perfect example. He was able to use his wiliness and experience and bring it to the Super Bowl. The original shows were so high energy I don’t even know if people could even understand everything I was saying. I talked so fast and I literally could get hurt onstage. I once took eight stitches because I was throwing myself around and I hit my head.
Obviously I’m not going to do that anymore. But I always thought it was a little too punk rock for the audiences anyway. I’ll never be chill onstage, but it’s different now.
Did the 100 Monologues website, where actor friends the likes of Mike Daisey and Tate Donovan perform monologues written by you, encourage you to revisit this material?
It’s been a lot of fun watching my friends take cracks at these monologues to varying degrees of success. I saw that there were different ways to do these monologues that I hadn’t thought through. Maybe I had been giving my own writing short shrift. The punk analogy is absolutely true. The original stuff was meant to be done very fast and hard, almost like at one level all the way through. But there’s other ways you can do it. You can find more colors by doing the monologue the way it’s written as opposed to the punk version, with no other tone than insanity. (Laughs.)
So you’re going to mix it up every night. Will you focus on specific bodies of work or mix it up randomly?
As I worked on it more and more with Jo Anne Bonney, who directed all the shows originally, we came to the conclusion there were more pieces than what could fit in one night, but some pieces should be in every night’s performance because they’re just such favorites of ours. There’s a core to the set that doesn’t change, about fifteen minutes. One of those core things is about a guy barbecuing. Not only do I really like the piece, but I just think it’s really appropriate to do that when I’m in Texas. There’s also different preachers and self-help guys I really like, but I don’t want to do more than one of them in one night.
I know you hate the term, performance art, and then you got bored with the theater scene. But what shot you off in this different direction back in the day?
The performance art world definitely left things open to do anything onstage and that was great, having no rules. But those guys didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t come out of the theater, they were artists. But I came out of the theater when I was a teenager and knew what it was. I had done all the standard theater stuff in college. But I had left that world and ended up in this art world. Their thing was that live performance could be anything.
We were doing crazy stuff. I was around not just performance artist people, but some of the really interesting theater, particularly Richard Foreman and the Performing Garage who were down the street. At the time they were making the transition from the original Richard Schechner group to the Liz LeCompte group that exists today, which at that time involved Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe. Those guys were all trying to think up, What is the craziest shit we can do? I love the license of that. I felt there was a potential excitement that can happen in the theater, but I wasn’t seeing it.
I eventually migrated back into the theater world around the same time that some new things were happening, the most significant being the Steppenwolf Theatre Company bringing True West to New York. That really shook things up, when John Malkovich and Gary Sinise came and did True West. The old-fashioned theater suddenly came to terms with stuff that was really energized.
What was so different?
You were going to the theater not to go to sleep, but to be woken up. That is still reflected today in a lot of the theater that goes on around the city with a lot of the younger playwrights who are just doing crazy shit. This is how the new generation erupts.
What else influenced you before you reemerged onto the Off-Broadway scene in the ‘80s?
I was really influenced by my visual arts friends, probably the best known of them being Cindy Sherman. We were all part of this crew and there were a lot of ideas being thrown around. You can see the parallels of my early work and Cindy’s because we were both playing around with the archetypes and notions of cultural types, which is really not the way that naturalistic theater works. We were all being very influenced by music. If you went over to Cindy’s loft, she always had whatever the latest shit was. We wanted that energy and we wanted that mindset. Punk can mean smart or funny, but it isn’t dry.
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Why did you want that energy?
You don’t want to put people to sleep. That seemed to be the main goal of the uptown theater at that point. You would literally go to uptown theaters and people would be asleep all around you and I just don’t want to be part of that kind of theater. If anyone falls asleep during my shows, they’ll regret it. I’ll see them sleeping and I will be in their lap before they know it.
What comes to mind when you remember filming Talk Radio in Dallas?
It was hard. I had written the thing and was still working on it with Oliver Stone whenever we weren’t shooting. But I was in every scene. We started early in the morning and then ended at night. I just had to come back to my hotel and throw myself into bed unless there was still some problem that had to be figured out in the script. We did it in 25 days. Of course I didn’t have much time to get much of what was happening in Dallas because we were just working. But one of the strongest residual things I got out of Dallas were all these amazing art books at a used bookstore. They’re still on my shelf today.
In your monologues, why are all the characters revolting?
(Laughs.) That’s the theater tradition I come out of. When I saw David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago in 1975, I was very thrown by that because he wasn’t presenting us with characters who were likeable. There’s a lot of unlikeable characters in the history of theater anyway. Like with Death of a Salesmen, I remember when Phil Hoffman was doing it on Broadway he would say it was so challenging because it’s about a guy who wants to kill himself. And yet it’s one of the most popular plays ever written. It’s hard to watch someone who is the most wonderful, nice person. It’s the problem we watch, not the solution.
Bitter Honey: The Best of 100 (Monologues), runs from 8 P.M., Thursday, February 11 to Saturday, February 13 at Wyly Theatre. Tickets run from $29 to $49 and can be purchased at attpac.org.