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Eric Bogosian

Performance minus the entertainment

By Joel Rosenberg

Wake Up and Smell The Coffee

American Repertory Theater

Loeb Drama Center

June 21-27, 1999

I left Eric Bogosian’s new show wondering if he believed what he said. Wake Up and Smell the Coffee is a one-man shows where this talented 46-year-old writer/performer slips effortlessly into and out of characters -- one of which is Eric Bogosian -- satirizing religion, airports, and the American Way. But it was such a dark, hopeless message, that it made me wonder why he bothers getting up in the morning.

Actually, he addresses this, and other meta-topics, within the show itself. He affirms his desire for money and power which is why he keeps coming up with these stage reflections of reality. “I want to sell out,” he tells us, “but no one wants to buy what I’ve got.” He wants to be recognized on the street and told how great he is, so that he’s somebody, so that he can control people’s minds and wants and desires, and gear them towards his ends. And he admits that in reality, he has nothing new to say; he can’t change us, the audience; he has no answers.

Mixed into these musings are vignettes: of a hippie Jesus asking his Dad what exactly he did to deserve crucifixion; a businessman on his cell phone at the airport ogling Calista Flockhart; a Chopra-esque guru explaining how alienation is “simply a lack of money.” He plays the Hollywood producer who spits on yesterday’s writer, now useless, while courting Bogosian, today’s writer, and explains how he’s merely a cog dog, trying not to misbehave in his place on the social ladder of life.

The show closes with a stoner toking a joint, talking about the karma associated with meatballs, and announcing that the Apocalypse will not be bombs or similar orgasms of violence, but instead the air will simply cease to be, and everything will stop. Lights out, audience applause, no ovation. The theater was packed, but the mood felt empty, as though the entertainer had performed but not entertained.

But we weren’t supposed to be entertained, as Bogosian had explained during the show -- he was only up there because our tickets pay his bills. This was intellectual masturbation, a higher-level discussion of how we go to see Bogosian perform in order to recognize ourselves, and feel good that we were able to identify ourselves in this higher-level discussion. It isn’t productive, it’s just personally entertaining, and could have been achieved without leaving home. That’s not really the point of art, even though this was staged by the ART.

My friend also wanted to know if Bogosian believed what he said, because “then I’d know if he had something to say.” I found this paradoxical: you don’t want him to believe what he says, and suspect he doesn’t since he hasn’t killed himself, and yet if he doesn’t believe it, then he and his message have no credibility. We ran into him on the street in Harvard Square after the show, and I thanked him for his performance. He was with his female friend, and they were both licking ice cream cones. “Thanks a lot,” he said with a smile. We walked on.