Starting in 2002, audiences will be seeing a lot less of Eric Bogosian the solo performer and a lot more of Eric Bogosian the playwright. Over the past 20 years, Bogosian has established himself as one of the American theatre's premiere monologuists, racking up critical and commercial hits such as Drinking in America, Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll, and Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead. Such was his success that the public thought of the solo shows as, in Bogosian's word, "the thing that I do" — even though playwriting had been a focus since the beginning of his career. But that's all changing now. The artist stated that his recent tour, a best-of anthology entitled The Worst of Eric Bogosian, which traced the nation in February and March, will be his last. And, as if to emphasize the point, he is premiering two new plays in the next few months: Humpty Dumpty, currently playing at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre; and The Red Angel at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer. In addition, his first novel, "Mall," was just released in paperback. He spoke with Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson.
Playbill On-Line: You've recently performed what you said would be your last tour as a stage performer. Are you leaving behind the solo shows because of your burgeoning career as a playwright and novelist?
Eric Bogosian: Well, it's all coming in tandem. My experience of the solo has been almost always different from what I thought it would be. It started out as very confrontational stuff that was very underground and I never expected anybody to be interested. It was something I was doing while I was writing plays. Next thing I know Joe Papp is inviting me to the Public Theater and now it's become the thing that I do. So, great — "Big successful thing? I'll take it where it leads me." But then it didn't lead me anywhere. I really did love doing the solos. I did have a period in the early '90s where there was a lot of demand for them and I'd show up in other cities and it would be sold out and it was really cool and fun. But that's tapered off. And unless you're always touring — like, Spalding Gray is always touring. I don't do that. Last year, I did as many dates as I've ever done in a year and that was 15 dates on the road. So, because of that, it's sort of petering out on its own as far as attracting an audience outside New York. Also, I'm getting older. They're very rigorous shows.
PBOL: Yes, it must be a strain.
EB: At the same time, I'm able to focus in a way I couldn't when I was younger and I can sit and do my pages every day on a novel. You just can't do it if you don't do it every single day. That's something that I've taught myself. And the editing is nothing but focus. That appeals to me now, as opposed to jumping around on stage.
PBOL: Will The Worst of Eric Bogosian come to New York?
EB: P.S. 122 keeps asking me about it. I don't find the New York City theatre scene a very comfortable scene right now. Everything requires so much investment from people that it's not relaxing to put up a show right now. Without the support of The Grey Lady, it's tough. I brought in a show two years ago, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. We spent a year preparing to bring it in. And, I'm not clear what the editorial policy of the Times is right now, but they're not supporting work — they basically do a thumbs up or thumbs down thing. The show was very good. It's probably not the best show I've ever done. But that would make it so that once you've done the best show you've ever done, you better not ever do a show again — I don't understand the logic of that. I can't do Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll again. The whole thing gives me a headache. [Laughs] You know, I'm lazy and I move toward the thing that's going to give me the most fun back.
PBOL: You have a new play, Humpty Dumpty, at the McCarter Theatre.
EB: [Reciting] "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, had a great fall, and they couldn't put him back together again." I've been working on this play for about three years and, horribly, 9/11 just raised all the stakes on this play. We already had the title. What happens in the play is four urban hotshots are on a vacation in upstate New York at a country house they've rented for a week. While they're there, there is what seems to be a blackout. They lose their electricity, their cell phones, they lose radio, TV, all contact with the outside world. They also don't have enough gas to get out of the place. They area is very rural. Their only contact with anybody is the guy who comes by to check on things, shovels the snow and rakes the leaves. The play is what happened to these people. The tables get turned over the course of time. PBOL: So the four young people are collectively Humpty Dumpty.
EB: It was originally titled The End of the World, meaning their world, the world of the cell phones, the faxes, the e-mail; they're entering a new world, the world of survival. And I didn't like the title, so I changed it to Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty comes up because at one point the only food they have to eat is eggs. Then, when 9/11 happened, I thought, "Well, there's the end of one world there, the beginning of another." Sadly, there was a lot of stuff in the play that kind of predicted 9/11. What happens is they lose their electricity and sit around and conjecture what happened. They don't know what happened, they just know some major cataclysm has hit the major city they come from. It was all in there, about anthrax, 747s going into buildings — it was all in the play a year ago. I didn't want to do anything after 9/11. I told Emily Mann, who runs the McCarter, that we shouldn't do the play. She felt that, with changes, the play would be even more worth doing than before. So I made the changes.
PBOL: Perhaps keeping the disaster vague and unknown will make the story more chilling.
EB: Well, that's what it ended up being. But that's not what the play was about. The play is about these people and who they think they are. Who we all think we are. I could be the best at what I do, but if you put me naked in the woods, I wouldn't be able to survive for two minutes. Most of us in the city are all hot dogs, but some guy out there with a rifle can win at the game of survival. It's a perennial theme, from "Robinson Crusoe" and "Cast Away."
—By Robert Simonson