Some critics would say Eric Bogosian’s Drinking in America is dated, but that’s very much up for argument. The script given to critics for the new production at the Minetta Lane Theatre is marked “Tweaked Drinking In America Script For Audible,” all in caps actually. In all fairness, some of the “current references” particularly with regard to in-demand actor names bandied about in the scene entitled “Wired” are names clearly from another age. That could have easily been “tweaked,” if they really wanted to do that. References to Quaaludes in the scene “Our Gang” reek of history rather than current usage, but then again, is there an easy 2023 replacement for Quaaludes, a drug that was taken off the market around the time the play was first produced? Aside from those references, the twelve scenes that comprise the play remain shockingly topical for our era.
So, yes, the attitude is very much 1980’s…an era where a man like Bernhard Goetz becomes a New York City hero as a subway vigilante. His addiction? Probably his own safety. There are so many addictions looked at in this play and actor Andre Royo, a Bronx-born actor best known for his role as Bubbles in HBO’s The Wire, returning to live theatre after a successful 15-year career in film and television, imbues all of them with a keen sensitivity to the downside of what makes men obsessive in their addictions. Royo has been very open in interviews about this play being a gift to himself in a celebration of one year of being sober, and we see that only someone who has been down that dark corridor can bring so much depth and nuance to men that on first glance are utterly repulsive, but on closer examination reveal a complex mix of toxic masculinity devoid of any compassion or consideration for themselves, much less others.
Director Mark Armstrong has made segues from scene to scene almost seamless. One sees the painstaking work between Royo and Armstrong to create distinct physicalities for each of the characters. Even where two of the characters obviously drink their breakfasts (and lunches), they can remain markedly different. Armstrong places us firmly in the 1980’s with subtle stage business: in “Wired,” for example, when the character is having difficulty hearing the other party on the phone, he pulls the “cordless” away from his ear to extend the antenna apparatus.
The thought to keep in mind while watching is behaviorally nothing about these types of men has changed in the 37 years since the play’s premiere. At the top of the evening, a scene entitled “Journal,” Royo begins reading from one. It is meant to be autobiographical, of a younger self, but it becomes the first character of the evening: a young man takes acid, then climbs out of a bath and answers the door naked to find a young female neighbor that he invites in. After they are done philosophizing over tea, she decides to leave rather than ruin a special moment they shared by having “something as common as sex.” He plans trashing a relationship with a girlfriend, decides to drop out of college and move to Portland to begin his life anew as this acid episode has presented itself as an epiphany.
The scene “American Dreamer” introduces us to a street corner drunk. Downing an entire pint of wine before even speaking to us, he holds court talking to strangers and flirting with their female companions. He brags that he has so many ladies he had to buy an apartment building just to fill it up with them, all sitting around polishing their nails and waiting for his arrival every day…and he also has plenty of cars. A chauffeur drives him around all day long while he sits in the back getting high enough to pass out. Here Royo perfectly conjures up a man whose dreams are stylized scenes right out of the era’s blaxploitation film depictions of pimps.
In “Wired” we have the Hollywood mover and shaker who tells his New York client he needs to pour a cup of coffee (but snorts a line of cocaine) and needs to get the cream (enough time to pour a triple shot of bourbon) before coming back to the phone. He tells behind the scenes tales of everyone his client mentions, speaking at a pace completely fueled by the cocaine. But he somehow remains a success story in his industry. Conversely, in “Held Down,” a husband post-coitus holds his wife’s high expectations for him both in bed and in his career accountable for his inability to rise to either occasion. Royo gets the audience to almost sympathize with him until he fights back, ”You know what your problem is? You’re insatiable. You’re never satisfied. You can’t get enough. No guy is good enough for you. He has to be a success in the daytime, he has to be a success at night…I know what you need, you need a real insensitive, male-chauvinist-pig cowboy. That’s what you need. With the spurs…Yeah, a real cowboy.” Royo here throws shade at those men whose masculinity is clearly a mask to hide a deeper fragility.
“Ceramic Tile” finds a business conventioneer in a hotel room with a paid escort for the night. He tells his saga of being the very best salesman in his industry with the constant pressure of having to produce at higher levels with even greater results while his wife thinks her job is spending the money he earns. Royo’s feat here is presenting someone whose utter repulsiveness substantially outweighs any empathy we could possibly have for him, as he puts it “just a lonely little cowboy”. He demeans the girl, a college student doing escorting on the side, reminding her to not lose sight of what she has been paid to do…”jus’ so that hundred bucks don’t go to a complete waste…jus’ so your boss knows you’re working?”
“Commercial” paints the picture all too clearly of how masculinity is handled with the utmost in insincerity by the advertising industry. A voice from the sound booth instructs, yet disinterestedly so, “Macho. But with a smile. You’re selling virility,” to an over-tired actor in a Beer commercial voiceover. His final three takes for the tagline are done “normal,” “peppy” and “deep” with not even him convinced, yet he waits for approval on the fadeout. The scene “Melting Pot” holds Latino machismo and responsibility under the microscope. A Cuban owner of a dive restaurant berates a Puerto Rican worker for his inability to do the French fries without making a mess of the entire kitchen. He tries to instill a better working culture in the young man holding the prospect of being fired over his head. He references “That Chinese guy, he was great! Buck an hour that guy, huh?… Too bad he die on me” as what should be the young man’s aspirations.
“Our Gang” is quite horrifying taking into consideration how much destruction is detailed in a telling of a foursome’s exploits of the previous evening. Two couples are driving around, all under the influence of Quaaludes. The driver loses control of the car, crossing a highway barrier ultimately totaling it into a ravine. They hitchhike with a Beatnik in a van. One of the men cuts the driver with a knife escalating into a beatdown of the driver being left for dead on the highway. They total the van too and turn it into a fireball in the woods. They then make their way into the home of an elderly couple leaving them bound with electrical wire. At some point all four are on acid and not even aware of what they are doing. Royo’s expert delivery finds us laughing at some of the most inappropriate moments. It goes without saying this must end with a punchline.
“No Problems” is just that…a man smug with all he has accomplished by taking the very straight and narrow path. His achievements are all check-marked one by one. This man’s addictions are all achievement based. “Godhead” is very much the opposite end of the spectrum. A heroin addict just wants to be left alone. He realizes there are people who are taken aback by his remarks, but a respectable career is not for everyone. “The Law” features a fire-breathing preacher intent on getting his parishioners galvanized to the point of taking the work of God into their own hands – bombing abortion clinics and carrying out their own justice in the war against crime. Royo skillfully creates a palette of out-of-control fearmongering. The final scene, “The Fried-Egg Deal” leaves us with a charming panhandler who reminds us, “You know why I’m good? I’m good because if I wasn’t where I was you couldn’t be where you was…you can’t have a top without a bottom.” Again we are left with looking at two sides of another coin.
Kristen Robinson’s scenic design is simple yet so effective. A black plywood wall with cut outs for windows and a door at one end. Three different chairs – an armchair, a metal straight back chair and a swivel chair at a desk. The minimalism forces you to connect with the words. Sarita Fellows’ costumes are layers that are easy for Royo to take off or put on to move quickly to the next scene. Jeff Croiter’s lighting is painterly in setting up the appropriate mood of each scene.
Drinking in America had so much to tell us about men and addiction and society over 30 years ago. And here we are with this riveting production in 2023 with a reminder that we still have so much to learn.
Drinking in America (through April 13, 2023)
Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ticketmaster.com
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission