In subUrbia, Angst and Nihilism at 7-Eleven; In Fat Pig, Love Comes Super-Sized

Meet the burnouts of Burnfield, USA. The young adults of Eric Bogosian's play subUrbia, now being done by Upstart Productions at The Green Zone, have turned the curbside at their local convenience store into an ersatz salon. They hang there every night and sometimes on toward dawn, drinking, smoking and bullshitting about life, love and the lack of meaning in, well, everything but good pizza and cold beer. Here's a speech early in the play by Jeff, the group's self-appointed philosopher-poet:

"Nothing ever fucking changes. Fifty years from now, we'll all be dead, and there'll be new people standing here, drinking beer and eating pizza, bitching and moaning about the price of Oreos, and they won't even know we were ever here. And 50 years after that, those suckers will be dust and bones. And then there will be more suckers after them. And all these generations of suckers will try to figure out what the fuck they were doing on this fucking planet, and they will all be full of shit. It's all so fucking futile!"

Jeff is Bogosian's Holden Caulfield, the smart kid who was raised right but hates the world because he can't quite find his place in it. He talks a lot of trash with his loser friends, but he's the only one in the bunch who makes the effort to toss his Oreo wrappers into the proper receptacle. He's not completely sure he wants to throw away his life, though, so he's the only one of them who's bothered to further his education after high school, taking one class a semester at community college.

Here he is one warm evening in 1994, down at the 7-Eleven again (enough of it reproduced by set designers Cindy Ernst and Zachary Broadhurst to make you crave coffee and a cruller). Jeff, played with a twitchy, live-wire vibe by Joey Folsom, and his four buds—military dropout and raging racist Tim (Andrews W. Cope), pot-head skater-punk Buff (Ryan Martin), repeat rehabber Bee-Bee (Cassie Bann) and budding performance artist Sooze (Natalie Young)—have a special reason to camp out on their curb longer than usual this night. One of their classmates, Pony (Justin Locklear), is back in town. He's a minor rock star now, and after his concert in the stadium downtown, he's promised to drop by. He might even arrive in a limo.

In the hyper-realistic staging by Upstart (co-producing with Project X), subUrbia throbs vividly to life. It's a great piece of funny-sad ensemble drama by Bogosian, king of the angry monologue and champion of angst-ridden urban nihilists (most evident in Upstart's acclaimed production last fall of Bogosian's Talk Radio). Through smooth direction by Josh Glover, who cast young actors so right for their roles it's like they're not acting, in subUrbia we get the brand of theater we need more of: natural, credible, deeply affecting and hot as hell.

Upstart has established itself, in only four shows spread over two seasons, as a company that has just about perfected an organic style of acting that stands up to close scrutiny. Their actors never strike a false note. In subUrbia, it's as if you're parked in that 7-Eleven lot, watching out an open window as the characters eat, drink, flirt and fight. The Green Zone's 60-seat space puts you so close to the action, in fact, you'll be tempted to swat the burning Marlboros out of the kids' lips, warning, "Those things will kill you." This is micro-acting (my favorite kind) at its best, by actors not "doing" the roles but being these people. How can you tell? Watch the ones who aren't talking, like Nasir Mehdi and Maryam Baig-Lush, who play the nervous young Pakistani owners of the store. Lot of stuff happens there.

What happens in the play may seem a bit like a contrived plot turn in an S.E. Hinton novel, but because Upstart's cast is so authentically invested in the inner lives of Jeff, Tim, Pony, Bee-Bee, Sooze and the others, you'll care and you'll believe it. And be glad that Bogosian wrote subUrbia when he did. In the pre-cell phone, pre-Internet early 1990s, aimless youth in bland suburbs like Burnfield still gathered "down the corner" to engage face to face. These days, isolated by technology and ennui, they'd drunk-text each other or shorthand their feelings in 140-letter tweets. Hard to make a play around that.

Up close and almost uncomfortably personal is how Dallas Theater Center presents its latest in the ongoing run of Neil LaBute's trilogy of "Beauty Plays." How the tricky subject matter of Fat Pig sits with you might depend on how comfortably you sit in the tiny chairs in the studio space at the Wyly Theatre. Size matters here in a drama whose subject matter is size.

The 90-minute play takes you through the thick and thin of the romance between Tom (Regan Adair), who's thin, and Helen (Christie Vela), who's not. He's no "chubby chaser," but when uptight Tom meets smart, jokey Helen at a crowded lunch counter, he takes a shine to more than her big personality. They start dating, but Tom keeps it a secret from his office crony, Carter (Steven Walters), who's the type who watches a size zero walk away and calls her fat. And he doesn't really want co-worker and former girlfriend Jeannie (Aleisha Force) to know. They ended badly, one of those pry-her-grip-off-the-ankles break-ups.

Over cozy dates at out-of-the-way cafes and at-home movie nights, Tom and Helen fall in love. When Carter and Jeannie find out the details of Tom's new relationship, they get ugly, calling Helen a "beast" and worse. The relationship seems doomed by peer pressure and by Tom's own insecurities; he admits he's a wuss. His and Helen's last date, a day at the beach, turns out to be no day at the beach.

Directed by DTC's artistic head honcho, Kevin Moriarty, Fat Pig is performed in the Wyly's minuscule sixth-floor studio space. Sit on the front row (as I did opening night) and you'll have to shift positions to stay clear of the actors. The cast here is fine. Adair, who plays leads in every major theater in Dallas and Fort Worth (and directed the aforementioned Talk Radio), makes a charming, weak-willed Tom. Walters, also starring in another "Beauty Play," The Shape of Things, is explosively cretinous as Carter. Aleisha Force does a snappish, Laura Linney-like turn as Jeannie.

And DTC company member Vela, who played Helen a few years ago at Kitchen Dog Theater, once again pours her big, beautiful self into a role that requires almost too much baring of skin and raw emotion from an actress. She's a different Helen this time, maybe a touch less sexy, less ravenous in the love scenes. Costumer Ric Dreumont Leal puts her in garish colors and ghastly polyester dresses too, which don't flatter voluptuous curves. (At Kitchen Dog, as I recall, her Helen wore pretty lingerie in the bedroom scene; here she's in unsexy flannel leggings and an ugly muumuu top.)

Some in the audience growled in disgust when Adair rolled on top of Vela and kissed her passionately. Anorexic souls.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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