H ow quickly it all rushes back. Grunge. Gen-X. House of Pain. I even had a Reality Bites memory for the first time in a decade. It was 1994 when Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia, a dark comedy about disaffected kids hanging out in a convenience-store parking lot, had its premiere. Twelve years later, Bogosian has updated the script for a revival at Second Stage. The disgruntled vet is back from Iraq now, not the Far East. His friends have iPods and cell phones and talk about Websites—but the references don’t ring true. The play’s ineluctably of its moment, as early-nineties as Kurt Cobain.
The problem isn’t that small but telling details of youth culture seem askew. (Though many do: Does anybody still think of New York as a fearsome den of crackheads, or want to be a performance artist like Karen Finley? At least Johnny Depp remains the totem of Hollywood cool.) The real trouble is that the world has shifted under the play. It appeared when the country was coming out of the Bush recession—the first one—in a time of peace but not prosperity. Today it feels a little quaint to fret over underemployed twentysomethings, now that history’s back with a vengeance. If you want to worry about anybody’s lack of prospects, worry about their parents’.
I’m not saying that Bogosian’s characters or their lifestyle are extinct: There are just as many bored kids sneaking out behind 7-Elevens to hook up in the woods as ever. But without the sense that the play is capturing a generation’s angst, and in the wake of Neil LaBute, Kevin Smith, and a million post-punk bands’ picking over this material, neither the writing nor Jo Bonney’s production holds your attention. More than once, I thought wistfully of After Ashley, Gina Gionfriddo’s 2005 play about a boy deciding whether to let a falsely idealized image of his mother replace the true, messy one. Partly, no doubt, it’s because the shows share Kieran Culkin. (He’s in the Steve Zahn role here; half his impulses are inspired, the other half ridiculous. There’s a real if wobbly talent scuttling around up there.) But mainly, Ashley’s concern with sacrificing the truth to get ahead—selling out—feels more relevant than Bogosian’s scenes of grumbly youth.
One aspect of the revival does feel of-the-moment, but it isn’t Bogosian’s. Along the back wall of Richard Hoover’s bright convenience-store set, a row of glass cases holds Gatorade, six-packs, every hue of soda. Like Andreas Gursky’s enormous photo of a 99-cent store in Los Angeles, the fizzy splendor, neatly arranged and gaudily diverse, creates a supersaturated picture of American plenty. So much sugar, so little nutrition.