‘My name is Eric Bogosian, and I used to live in this building 33 years ago, in the very, very top. Have you been to the top? The little, tiny room? I painted that room.” The twentysomething ticket-seller behind the box-office glass of the Westside Theatre—a deconsecrated church on West 43rd Street—looks cheerful if slightly stunned by the rat-a-tat baritone outside her booth. “That’s crazy,” she says. Maybe she recognizes those curly black locks (now white-flecked at the temples) and intense green-gray eyes, or maybe she’s just being polite. Most likely she knows him from his role as Danny Ross on NBC’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent, since the sweaty, angry monologues that made him downtown-famous in the eighties are about as old as she is. She certainly has no idea what has brought him here: Bogosian’s third novel, Perforated Heart, in which a jaded author rediscovers some ancient journals, not unlike Bogosian’s own diaries, chronicling life in the rogue state of seventies New York.
Inside the theater, Westside’s operations manager gladly leads a tour of the old garret, now an office with a new window and coat of paint, though Bogosian happily notes the original wainscoting and gabled ceiling. “Smoking weed in a place like this—when you’re all alone, late at night, this neighborhood was definitely whacked out,” he says in a near whisper, as though telling an urban ghost story. “A wicked, dangerous neighborhood—full-tilt boogie.” He remembers the sound of hooker fights drifting up from the street—trannies versus naturals. “Three holes are better than two!” they’d shout. Twice more he says he was the first person to paint the room—“I don’t know why I keep mentioning that.” The 56-year-old Bogosian—perhaps the most self-analytical non-Jew in town—knows what he looks like. “This is probably the last time I should do this,” he says. “I’m starting to feel like an old guy—‘Yeah, in the old days, we used to …’ ”
He banters awkwardly with the manager. Turns out they worked together on the actor’s last monologue show, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, in 2000. (“I should have known who he was,” Bogosian says later.) It was his sixth in a string of pioneering multicharacter shows, including the award-winning Drinking in America, that paved the way for later monologuists like Sarah Jones and Danny Hoch. Talk Radio, one of his two hit full-length plays, was nominated for a Pulitzer. But Wake Up may have been the end of that line.
“A sad ending for me,” says Bogosian. “I was supposed to run four months, and I did two. It was a good show.” He trails off in the manner of someone who knows when to move on, but not quite how to let go. Being known as Mr. Monologue was never part of his plan, but being known for something—that’s another story.
Down in Tribeca dungeons like the Mudd Club and Tier 3, where, in 1979, disco was giving way to punk and the first stirrings of No Wave, a character named Ricky Paul figured out a different way to get under people’s skin, using nothing but words. Lenny Bruce by way of Johnny Rotten, Paul spewed sexist humor and incoherent paranoia before an audience reared on sixties bromides. He wore a porkpie hat and a ratty blazer stained with food and spit, courtesy of said audience. (One Boston crowd near-rioted when he opened for the band Mission of Burma). A few onlookers got it, though—young artists (and friends) like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo who understood he wasn’t angry, he was doing angry, and they thought it was hilarious.
To figure out exactly why Eric Bogosian decided to become Ricky Paul, it helps to look at the journal entries of the young Richard Morris, Perforated Heart’s restless, rangy writer. Between episodes of sex, drinking, and drugs, Morris makes a lunging stab at an artistic manifesto: “I have to energize my writing, like the music over at Max’s Kansas City. Like a machine gun. Blam-blam-blam. My writing must be lethal … Real people don’t think, they talk and they act. Without knowing why they talk and act.” The Ricky Paul Show was as aggressive as the bands playing CBGB, as uninhibited as the freewheeling dancers over in Robert Wilson’s loft, just a block from where Bogosian worked at the Kitchen.
And from the start it was, of course, an act. Bogosian was never as volatile as his raving stage persona. “Looking at these old videos and what a real geek I was, whatever I was pretending to be or thought I was, at the end of the day what I really am is a very bookish guy,” says Bogosian, who left the University of Chicago for Oberlin partly because of the rampant crime. Today, married with two kids, he is not among the aging liberals who prefer the old New York to the new. “I’m scared of that stuff. And yet, when I was a kid, there were guys in my hometown who were semi-dangerous, and I tried to hang out with them as much as I could.”