Fans of Eric Bogosian’s dark, caustic style will be pleased to hear that his new solo show, “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee,” is definitely light on the cream and sugar. Although Bogosian’s latest rant contains references to the showbiz success he’s attained over the past decade, it’s pretty clear that placid contentment is nowhere in sight. A taste of fame, the country’s most sought-after drug, has only given Bogosian a new target for his verbal ammunition — himself. Filled with anxiety about his all-too-human anxiousness to secure and increase his fame and fortune, our antihero is queasy with self-disgust, and he’s anxious to share it.
Bogosian is an amazingly magnetic live performer, and his volatile presence and considerable acting skills rivet the attention even when his material seems repetitive or aimless, as it does on occasion here. His show is loosely structured as a commentary on two recent trends in American culture, a taste for pop spirituality and the quest for lots and lots of money, and it’s strongest when he’s tackling these subjects directly and making connections between them.
A scabrous early rant about the crucifixion makes the bitter point that if God treated his own kid with such, er, tough love, he can hardly be expected to smile on the rest of us continually. He’s “a capricious little fuck,” in Bogosian’s funny if theologically simplistic view, who bears a certain resemblance to Lou Reed — he does whatever he wants.
Bogosian also impersonates a smooth-talking Satan (with a vague Southern accent), and takes a scalpel to the soothing balms of the Deepak Chopra school of self-help. In honeyed tones, with a vaguely Indian accent, he impersonates a lecturer who calmly informs us that the experience of life is either a matter of “harmoniousness” or “alienation” — states of mind seemingly within the grasp of us all. But Bogosian then describes examples of each, and it becomes clear that harmoniousness equals wealth, and alienation poverty. Faiths of all kinds are empty palliatives, in Bogosian’s critical view.
There’s plenty of bitter truth in the essential points Bogosian makes in “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.” The universe is an unfeeling place, where people fight fiercely for their own piece of the pie while shrugging their shoulders and clicking their clickers at the plane crashes, terrorist bombings and civil wars that litter the media landscape. Does art offer any comfort? Not in the gospel according to Eric: He opens the show with monologue about the unifying experience of theater — “We are holy!” he cries with arms upraised — that ends on a deeply sarcastic note.
The unremitting bleakness of Bogosian’s pieces here grows somewhat monotonous, in truth. Although he’s consistently and often blisteringly funny on the subject of the chaos and alienation of postmodern life, this is ground that’s been well traveled before, and Bogosian’s insights often seem a little too close to teenage sloganeering of the “life’s-a-bitch-and-then-you-die” school.
The strafing seems unfocused at times, too. When he’s not playing upon his own uneasiness with his own Hollywood fame and the comforts it brings, Bogosian offers some disturbing, dark and funny portraits of morally adrift characters, including an abusive husband and father who finds solace only in the company of his dog, and a harried business traveler going ballistic on a fellow Gold Card holder who dares to cut in front of him in line. These captivatingly performed segments do not, however, seem to blend easily into the more personal fabric of the show, despite Jo Bonney’s fluid direction.
“Wake Up and Smell the Coffee” is at its best when it’s implicitly connecting the dots between spiritual emptiness and our obsession with those gilded and solace-giving creatures known as celebrities. The show’s comic peak is a peek at our new age Valhalla, a place where Puffy Combs and John Tesh make beautiful music together, and the rich and famous cavort happily while the hordes look on adoringly from below, fervently hoping to one day climb the ladder that leads up there.
Bogosian doesn’t excuse himself from this group: He’s as anxious as anyone to join the celestial throng, he freely admits, even if his tone is drenched in ironic self-mockery. In our faithless world, where life is rough and painful and human connections are fleeting and hollow, we may not really believe that somewhere up above, where Gwyneth and Oprah and Madonna dwell, things are different. But we still want desperately to discover this firsthand.