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Drinking in America

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 19, 2023

Andre Royo
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
In September 1986, Lily Tomlin took Broadway by storm in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Jane Wagner's play that explored, among other topics, women's issues and second-wave feminism in the United States. Nine months earlier, though, Eric Bogosian garnered raves for Drinking in America, his one-person, Off-Broadway show that examined facets of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Taken together, the works offered a portrait of cultural attitudes toward gender at the end of the 20th century. Last year, Search for Signs was revived in a middling production starring Cecily Strong, and now Audible Theater is presenting Drinking in America with Andre Royo. Nearly forty years later, Bogosian's play reveals that while some of the favored intoxicants may have changed, masculinity in general remains as toxic as ever.

Comprising a series of monologues, Drinking in America offers a gallery of rogues, scoundrels, and desolate men. Most of the vignettes include references to drugs and/or alcohol. And just as it did originally, the evening commences with the actor as himself welcoming the audience and sharing an excerpt from a journal entry he had written as a much younger man. Royo reads a passage he wrote as a college student and which describes an experience he had with a young woman after dropping acid.

Royo then transforms into about a dozen different characters, representing a range of socio-economic classes. We first meet a displaced heroin addict, who claims to be living the American dream. After shooting himself up, he says, "I do what I wanna do, I do what EVERYBODY wants to do ... I drive aroun' all day long in my limousine ... I get high ... put my head back ... watch da clouds ... and I ... pass out ... I pass out."

Throughout, Bogosian interrogates the characters' dogged pursuit of the American dream, all the while demonstrating the moral and physical toll it can have on a man. There is a bourbon-swilling, coke-snorting Hollywood agent hustling for his client Lee Marvin. A little later, we meet a ceramic tile salesman, who is a husband and father of a fourteen-year-old, and he is having a hotel tryst with a prostitute. Toward the end of the play, a preacher, sounding like a cross between David Mamet and Ron DeSantis, rails against liberalism and the effects of what the current Florida governor would refer to as groomers: "Our children," he rants, "are subjected daily to the perversions of their schoolteachers and when they come home from school they have nothing better to do than to take drugs or alcohol, watch television, learn how to become homosexuals and rapists."

The longest segment of the evening is the most disturbing. In it, a seemingly harmless working-class young man recounts a night in which a quaalude-induced joy ride turns into a violent escapade. The narrator's "dude-you-won't-believe-what-happened-next" tone produces big laughs until the audience realizes that the story isn't so funny after all.

Directed by Mark Armstrong (with movement director Adesola Osakalumi), Royo is terrific. With just a slight change of costume (designed by Sarita Fellows), he fully realizes each character. Most of the men are awful, but they are awful in different ways, and Royo makes them human as he peels back layers of loneliness and desperation. He even manages to perform inebriation differently. Having seen several of Bogosian's solo shows (although I did not see him perform Drinking in America), I felt at times the two artists had eerily merged. Royo certainly refashions the material to fit his own talents, but he seems to have inhabited the spirit of Bogosian.

Kristen Robinson's box-like set consists of a black-painted plywood wall with a few pieces of furniture spread across the width of the stage. At first, I was put off by the imposing untheatrical starkness of the design. Initial impressions are deceptive, however, and Jeff Croiter's brilliant lighting literally and figuratively highlights the cracks in the fa├žade and hauntingly illuminates the monologues in unexpected ways.

The final monologue focuses on a homeless man begging for money from the audience. He reminded me of a character from Love, which is currently playing at the Park Avenue Armory. At the end of that play, a homeless woman reached out to the audience for assistance, and several people took her hand and helped her leave the space. Tellingly and perhaps more realistically, at the conclusion of Drinking in America, when the man stretched out his hands for aid, none of us in the audience reached back. The play may be thirty-seven years old, but the story remains the same.

Drinking in America
Through April 14, 2023
Audible Theater
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: