Augustana College's production of subUrbia features one of the most (if not the most) layered and fascinating sets I've yet seen on a local stage, as Adam Parboosingh's scenic design manages to give us both a brick storefront - including parking spaces, cement parking bumps, scaffolding, a dumpster, and even a period-appropriate, mid-'90s pay phone - and the fully stocked interior of a convenience store at the same time. Consequently, Parboosingh's set rendered Friday's performance interesting well before the play even started, offering much to take in visually while we waited for the proverbial curtain to rise.
Yet while director Jennifer E. Popple and her cast deliver a worthy effort at making playwright Eric Bogosian's Generation X commentary as interesting as Parboosingh's set, they're working with a script that falls flat in its second act by failing to develop on the generational intricacies prevalent in the first. It also hurts that Bogosian's play isn't really about anything, in that his plot is rather a loose one involving a successful musician's return to his hometown, and the interests and jealousies it invokes. (Then again, Bogosian is addressing the "Gen-X attitude" and its rampant existentialism, so the apparent meaninglessness of his play may be perfectly appropriate.)
At subUrbia's outset, Bogosian introduces us to three slackers hanging out in front of a convenience store while pontificating about race, poverty, and the pointlessness of life. As Bill Cahill's worldly, angry, and defeated Jeff notes, "If I can't do something that shatters the world, I'd rather not do anything at all," and Cahill, in his least affected portrayal on the Potter Hall stage, is countered here by John D'Aversa, whose Air Force veteran Tim is a racist philosopher with a disdain for other countries. They're joined by Joshua Malone's Buff - a roller-blading stoner with an amusingly dimwitted, Bill & Ted-esque nature - and their introductory scene should set the tone for the entire play, as they banter about the world, refer to the Pakistani convenience-store owners as "dot-heads" and "towel-heads," and talk a lot about what's wrong with the world while doing nothing to make it better. (This banter makes Bogosian's play, at times, reminiscent of the 1994 Generation X film Reality Bites.)
If subUrbia had ended at intermission, the audience would be left with some loose ends, but would likely have walked away with a sense of meaning in Bogosian's work - that Gen X, in the mid-'90s, was at a crossroads between the judgmental, racist attitudes of the previous generation (Bogosian's characters liberally throw around racist epithets and the words "fag" and "faggot") and the more open-minded attitudes of the generation that followed. Instead of driving this home, though, Bogosian's play continues into its second act with the playwright dropping the play's "commentary" aspect in favor of a convoluted plot that involves a potential murder, and a climactic statement that ends up more or less defining the point of Bogosian's play but still seems somewhat vague.
Bogosian's piece also features an odd conceit, in that the only two characters that come off looking good - the only people with a valid, not-entirely-defeatist viewpoint of the world - are the play's artists: Calvin Vo's successful musician Pony, and Aubrey Waddick's overly philosophical performance artist Sooze. To his credit, Vo's humble, seemingly awkward (for fear of coming off as boastful) Pony is wholly, impressively different from his wildly androgynous Dionysis in Augustana's The Bock Eye earlier this year - which was wholly, impressively different from his utterly likable and charming title character in last year's Bat Boy the Musical. Waddick, meanwhile, adds a welcome humorous edge to Sooze's less-in-touch-than-she-believes-them-to-be blatherings of poetry.
If any characters are worth caring about in Augustana's production, they are Pony and Sooze, who are made so by the actors' nuanced performances. Unfortunately, though, it's hard to hold any interest in what happens even to them, as Bogosian drives his plot in too many odd directions, and even chooses to have the play's most impactful event happen to one of the least significant of its characters. If it weren't disrespectful toward the cast and crew, I'd almost recommend seeing subUrbia but leaving at intermission. That way, you'd be left with a better sense of the meaning and thought-provoking ideas drawn from Bogosian's views on Generation X.
subUrbia runs at Augustana College's Potter Theatre (3701 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island) through May 5, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)794-7306 or visiting Augustana.edu/tickets.