Suburbia: American Dream, or Nightmare?

April 28, 2018


Passion Theatre continues its mission of tackling of modern scripts with provocative content with Eric Bogosian's Suburbia.  Set in 1994 (the year it was published), Suburbia portrays the events of one fateful night in suburban New Jersey outside everyone's favorite 24-hour-hangout: the 7-11.  A quick note; this play is not for the faint of heart, and includes drugs and alcohol, sexual content, and strong language including several racist tirades (in context). It's a bit of an ugly play, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth watching.


The show's characters feel comfortably familiar, partly because they are tropes but also because many of us grew up in a safe, white, middle class area and will recognize them from our own angsty youths.  Jeff, played by Jordon Snelenberger, is The Philosopher; he is smart but unambitious, indecisive, and a bit myopic. He meets his two best friends at the 7-11 for a night of smoking, drinking, and wasting time.  Buff (Colton Dexter) is the Comedian; he has the frantic energy of a young frat boy and the voice of a 90's burnout. Tim (Isaiah Powell) is the Loose Cannon; an alcoholic and violent racist from his time serving in the Air Force.  Filling out the main cast are Sooz (Erica Tatum) the Idealist; a student and aspiring artist who wants to change the world and feels suffocated by her suburban lifestyle, and BeeBee (Natalie Schwartz) as the Quiet One surprisingly fresh out of rehab.  This group spends most evenings getting drunk, talking about life, occasionally coupling, and annoying Norma (Jayla Gaskins in a part originally written as male), a Pakistani immigrant who owns the 7-11. Tonight is also different, as the gang is waiting for Pony (Kelley Gray) to visit.  Pony is another high school friend who has become a successful musician, and his arrival brings insecurities and conflicts to the forefront. Gina Kearley does double duty as Erica, Pony's Publicist, and Pakeeza, co-owner of the 7-11.



The performances are a bit of a mixed bag, but there are definitely a few standouts.  Tatum as Sooz is alternately funny, earnest, sarcastic, and charming. She starts off with a performance art piece that is reminiscent of Maureen from “Rent,” just the right amount of funny and oh-so-90's.  In Act 2 she delivers a monologue about her little brother that is truly dynamite. Dexter also does a fine job as lovable oaf Buff - he is always moving and has a great "buddy" chemistry with the other actors.  Schwartz as Bee Bee is a very interesting character with a great monologue about her experience in rehab. She is vivacious and fun to watch, but may be a bit too peppy for her seriously depressed character.


Gray as musician Pony is a little less successful - he does a fine, natural job with the lines and has a nice singing voice on two solos in which he accompanies himself on guitar, but his obvious age difference with the other actors combined with his mature energy made him a little more "groovy guidance counselor" than cool rock star.  I can't help but think he may have been a better fit for violent alcoholic Tim, as Powell struggles to find the right tension and worldliness that this role demands. Tim should feel like a loaded gun ready to go off at any second, and instead he feels a bit like your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. There are also occasionally reactions from actors that are a little distracting and not fitting the context of the scene (particularly in the girls' reactions to Buff), and sometimes lines get lost with softer-voiced characters.


Bogosian's script suffers a bit in and of itself.  It's a challenge to stage a show that takes place in one static location and is primarily monologue and dialogue based.  First-time director Hope McLellan does an admirable job of trying to block everything so it has movement and doesn't become too boring, but in some of her more climactic scenes - when people are discussing shocking events or even weapons enter the picture, the energy doesn't change enough to reflect it.   This is a very difficult show for a beginning director, and overall you could see that she really cared about it and gave good attention to details. I look forward to seeing more directorial work from her as her experience grows.


The set pieces designed by McClellan and Belarmino Alvarez were functional with some nice painting jobs.  A different arrangement may have added some visual interest, though--the 7-11 is dead center with most of the action taking place downstage center in an imaginary parking lot.  Offsetting the store and dumpster could have given the stage more dynamic depth and given another playing space, the impression of an alleyway. Another possible addition could be a curb outside the store, which would give actors another place to sit and encourage more levels in blocking.  


Lighting and Sound by Jason Tisdale were well done; everything was prompt with cues, and volume issues occurred only when actors used voices too soft or accents too thick.  Pre and post-show music was 90's grunge and punk, and a boom box was also used on stage for a few more scenes. I did wish music ran a bit more throughout the show, as it would have been a nice touch to some of the more comedic scenes.  A quick shout out is well deserved for Daniel Montgomery, who has done Graphic Design and Photography for Suburbia and other shows by Passion. Promotional materials and programs for these shows always look not only professional and beautiful, but fresh and innovative!


There's a lot to unpack when you watch Suburbia.  The script ends rather suddenly and is a bit open-ended, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks about what the show meant to them.  In many ways it is a play about the dangers of a "safe" childhood, a riot against superficiality, a statement about substance abuse and self-harm.  It's a play showcasing the problems we make for ourselves when we don't have any real problems. It's a play about masculinity and femininity; the fragile and the strong and the intersection of the two in unexpected ways.  It's a play about indecision; the watchers of the world who are too fearful of making the wrong decision to make any decision at all. Suburbia also features some conflict between aimless suburban white youths and hardworking immigrants.  The youths feel entitled to the American Dream and are not pursuing it, while Norma and Pakeeza are working hard to be afforded the same opportunity, even though they are demeaned and disrespected at every turn. If you are the kind of person who enjoys having a story wrap up neatly, Suburbia may not be for you.  If you enjoy some spirited discussion after the show, and a little bit of literary analysis, then it is definitely one to consider.


Suburbia runs for two more shows today: Saturday, April 28th, and can be purchased online or at the door.  Tickets are still available for 4:00 and 9:00, and with some spot-on performances, a few laughs, and a few gasps, Suburbia is a great option for those who like their theatre in the deep end.


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