Photos by Adam Baudoux
Review by Jeremy Evans

Dreams die hard in the suburbs. That is the message of Eric Bogosian's Suburbia, currently in production in the Black Box Theatre at Saginaw Valley State University by the SVSU Theatre Department

First performed in 1994, Suburbia presents a trenchant—if perhaps familiar—critique of the American Dream. A group of young twenty-somethings, first- or even second-generation suburbanites, fritter away time questioning the middle class values they've been raised with while simultaneously benefitting from them.

The characters form a type: those who rail against materialism but remain tethered to their parents' yoke for food and shelter, spending all their minimal wages from loading boxes and delivering pizzas on beer and pot. Tensions begin to form with the arrival of an old high school friend who has made it (sort of) big as a rock star. Forced to confront the idea that dreams can come true through effort and determination, their protective bubble of apathy is punctured and the characters begin to fall to pieces.

Marty Hofelich is Jeff, a disappointed idealist of the Holden Caulfield school. Jeff is searching for a way out of the numbing confines of Burnfield—he is an aspiring writer (though of what, he's not sure)—yet is paralyzed by his own self-doubt. Bitterly jealous of the rock star, Pony (Bear McBride), Jeff cannot see that Pony’s success is not simply luck, but because Pony worked for it.

Under the pernicious influence of best friend Tim (Rusty Myers), an even more bitter, nihilistic Navy dropout, Jeff's defeatism has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: he has quit before he started. When he howls late in the play, "I have a voice! I have a message!" Jeff sounds as if he is trying to convince himself as much as his friends.

Jeff and Tim spend their free time loitering in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, chugging cheap beer and complaining about life with happy-go-lucky friend Buff (Dave Milka). Excitable and energetic, Buff is a crudely sexual, low-wattage hedonist who desires nothing more than "a beer, a babe, with an occasional burger or slice for vitamins and stuff." Sometimes sweetly carefree, sometimes annoyingly blustering, Buff acts as a release valve for the many tensions that brew between the other characters.

Jeff is in a relationship with Sooze (Sam White), a budding performance artist, but Sooze's announcement of her plans to transfer to art school in New York City send him reeling. Jeff cannot stomach the idea that Sooze both has ambitions and is willing to pursue them, and does his best to deter her from leaving.

White, as Sooze, provides some of the funniest moments of the play, such as the delivery of her strident, semi-coherent, didactically feminist performance art piece "Burger Manifesto Part One." In her Def Leppard Tour '87 t-shirt and her TOMS shoes, White’s costume conveys much about Sooze's conflict—between the morass of nostalgia holding her in Burnfield, and the desire to make a difference that is impelling her to break away. Other pivotal roles are filled by Jordan Lindow as Bee Bee, a troubled girl in the shadow of Sooze, and Danzell Calhoun as the convenience store’s owner, a hard-working Pakistani immigrant who is endlessly infuriated by the aimlessness and casual racism of the loafers on his doorstep.

Bogosian's acutely psychological script shows how each of these characters survives under certain delusions, and what happens when those pipe dreams vanish. Tim, ex-quarterback and ex-Navy, flounders under his sense of entitlement for being exceptionally "American." Bee Bee longs to be more than Sooze's sidekick. And Jeff wants to show the world he has something to say, even though his stammeringly profane speech suggests that what, if anything, he has to say is still nebulous.

Directed by Jerry Dennis, the cast showed a real grasp for the material, perhaps because the milieu and the characters are still familiar ones for young people growing up in America. Post-adolescent angst and ennui are, of course, nothing new; but what is somewhat surprising is how little has changed since the play was written.

Previously filmed in 1996 by Richard Linklater, Suburbia seemed very much a piece of the Gen-X, "slacker" zeitgeist, a companion to Clerks, Singles, or even Linklater's own Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Now it is clear that the play is not bound to the early ‘90s aesthetic. Despite some outdated technology that seems amusingly out of place—cassette players, pay phones—the themes are still relevant; Suburbia seems straight out of 2010. Or 1980. Or 1960, for that matter.

Credit should be given, as well, to the set design, sound design, and lighting design, for so effectively evoking the scene with minimal materials—a 7-Eleven façade, gum- and oil-spattered pavement, ambient cricket sounds. Most effective was the enervating glow of the lights, simulating the fluorescent floodlights of a parking lot at night. Both attractive and repellent, the light makes one feel like a depressed moth, desiring to break free from its artificiality, but unable to do so. An apt metaphor for the message of Suburbia—and, perhaps, of suburbia itself.

Suburbia runs Thursday and Friday nights at 7:30PM in the Studio Theatre/Black Box (Curtiss Hall 180) at Saginaw Valley State University. General admission is $10, students and seniors are $7. For more information or to order tickets for this and other SVSU Theater programs, please contact the Box Office at 989-964-4261.

© Jeremy Evans, 2010