Ah, the ’90s. When times were so good that the only thing kids had to worry about was the fact that there was nothing to worry about. The players at the Rose Theate have recreated the feel, if not the actual setting, of that bygone era of jaded prosperity with their production of Eric Bogosian’s 1994 play Suburbia. But at a distance of 16 years, and despite some updated references, the landscape sometimes looks two-dimensional.
The action (or lack thereof) takes place in the sleepy, allegorically named town of Burnfield — a fictional suburb of Austin — where a group of disaffected youth hang out every night outside a local convenience store, drinking, smoking, and philosophizing. As written by Bogosian, the characters are different shadings of the typical ’90s slacker. Jeff’s the smart guy who’s too smart to bother trying; Buff is the stoner moron with a good heart; Tim, the resentful former jock; Jeff’s girlfriend Sooze, the idealist; and Bee-Bee is the loner with low self-esteem. But as played by this ensemble, there’s not quite enough shading within each character. Jeff (Anthony Perales) and Buff (Jon Smith) are drunks, but the affectations are overused, and there is little variation in the way it’s played from one scene to the next. Tim (JJ Fletcher) is also drunk, but he’s projecting so much anger and negativity in every line (albeit very believably) that the character’s personality becomes flat. The actors inhabit their roles with enthusiasm, but finding moments to carve out some nuance in their portrayals would create more rhythm in the performance as a whole and heighten the emotional impact of the climactic scene.
On the other hand, the fact that these three male characters are stuck in a pattern of one-note “slackerism” is part of the play’s dramatic conflict. The main female characters are more well-rounded. Bee-Bee (Kristen Hinton) enthuses about her job at the local hospital. Sooze (Monique Sleeper) is an aspiring artist who dreams of moving to New York. Sleeper’s energetic confidence is engaging, and she makes Sooze’s relationships feel authentic and lived in.
The boys’ clueless insistence on drowning their ennui in booze and machismo is a constant source of conflict, particularly between Jeff and Sooze. Their interactions allow for some of Perales’s strongest scenes, in which Jeff attempts to articulate the confusion of youth and the difficulty of breaking free from a small-town world.
For that matter, most of the scenes between any two of the characters play stronger than those with the whole cast. This is partly because the characters become more “real” with each other when they’re not trying to impress one another. Their group dynamic becomes even more complicated with the arrival of former classmate Pony (Chris Manley), now a semi-famous rock musician, and his big-shot publicist Erica (Sophie Bolles).
Testosterone is fueled and tempers flare, including those of the convenience-store owners Norman (TJ Young) and Pakeesa (Alexis Boson), who are tired of these kids’ loitering, littering, and attitudes. The intrusion of these four characters into the safe, predictable world of the kids’ suburban wasteland shakes everything up, and the actors effectively deliver the message that reality does indeed bite.
Despite the script’s all-too-visible expiration date, this staging of Suburbia offers fresh moments because of the actors’ ability to believable recreate the feeling of being stuck in post-adolescent, pre-adult limbo. Sometimes their performances get stuck, too, but director Jessie Rose’s pacing and mise-en-scène give the right amount of motion to an intentionally static set. All the action takes place behind the convenience store, in the same spot, in the same town, on the same night. Among the scattered beer cans, cigarette smoke, and youthful attitude, you’ll feel the grunge. •
Through Jul 31
The Rose Theatre Co.