But even then, Bogosian—already writing plays—was courting danger for the material as much as the adrenaline. Those hometown guys—from working-middle-class Woburn, Massachusetts—would ride in to Cambridge, ten miles away, to beat up Harvard students, but Bogosian would beg off those trips, then go in on his own to hang with the hippies. “One looks back and tries to make it a much more difficult experience,” says theater producer Fred Zollo, a childhood friend who later put up some of Bogosian’s first plays and directed Talk Radio. “Eric knew a few of the more unsavory characters, but by the standard of anyone who’s grown up in the Bronx, it wasn’t that unsavory.”
Once in New York, Bogosian, like the young Morris, dove right in. He’d buy heroin on the Lower East Side, catch a midnight peep show in Times Square, walk through Central Park alone, then close out the night in a gay disco. But he drew the line—“chickened out”—at a gay bathhouse. “It seemed to me there was a good possibility of catching something in that place,” he says. “I didn’t like the humidity.”
Bogosian met Jo Bonney in 1980, when she hired him to do an animation voice-over for $75. Six weeks later, they were married at City Hall, and she went on to direct many of his plays. “I never thought he’d make a living,” says Bonney. “That whole side of him, the dependable, loyal part, was not a given. It was the other part that I was attracted to.”
He quit drugs and alcohol in 1984, not just to get healthy but to get ahead. “I was living on Elizabeth Street and I was 30 years old and I was a poor person on drugs and nothing was happening,” he says, which wasn’t precisely true: Frank Rich had already taken note of his solo shows, including a rave about 1983’s Funhouse, at the Public Theater, and things were starting to change—though not fast enough for Bogosian. Kate Kuper, a dancer he’d dated when he lived up in the attic, left New York for a few years, and by the time she came back, Bogosian was a downtown scenester—darker, she remembers, and more driven. “He was frustrated that all of these friends of his had already made a name for themselves,” says Kuper. “He was saying, ‘When is my time gonna come?’ ”
Bogosian’s monologues channeled the despair of a city in seemingly permanent decline. All the bums and junkies and goombahs he’d overheard from his rattrap apartment came menacingly alive for theatergoers terrified of the real thing. His 1987 play Talk Radio, in which he starred as a shock jock both onstage and in Oliver Stone’s film version, foretold the bread and circuses of Howard Stern and cable news. It also brought him to the precipice of fame. He was able to stand there, teetering, through his second full-length hit, subUrbia, which became a Richard Linklater film with music by Sonic Youth (Bogosian’s old Soho friends) just in time for slackermania. For anyone closely following the culture, circa 1994, Eric Bogosian was looking like a minor prophet.
It still wasn’t enough for him. Talk Radio was supposed to make him a movie star, and it didn’t. He developed a sideline in doctored scripts and pilots. Both in interviews and on his website (he may have been the first celebrity blogger), he alternately blamed himself and the system. From a typical post, in July 1997, about independent film: “Am I complaining? How can I? I’ve ‘starred’ in an action film [as the villain in Under Siege 2]. And I would have liked nothing better than for subUrbia to have become a hit. In fact, sadly, on some gut level, I only understand its success in monetary terms. This is my loss.”
In 1986, Frank Rich had labeled Bogosian a “downtown fixture for almost a decade”; a decade later, he still was. But the city had moved on, and a protean performer who’d expertly nailed the Zeitgeist—channeled it through his body before live audiences—was fixed to an era gone by.
On another leg of our Young Bogosian tour, we stumble upon the epicenter of downtown cool, 2009 edition. “This is Rivington Street,” Bogosian announces, “and this block was a drug supermarket.” The young Morris scores here in Perforated Heart, and so did Bogosian. While marveling at some shooting galleries turned beer gardens, he backs up against Freemans Sporting Club, the pseudo-ironic boutique in Taavo Somer’s hipster fiefdom. “This guy used to be on 13th Street, didn’t he?” asks Bogosian. I tell him I don’t think so. He checks with the salesman inside, a dapper, freshly showered youngster with a neat beard.