Halfway through Eric Bogosian's new monologue, ``New Americans (Between a Rock and a Hard Place),'' one of the characters he portrays - a TV evangelist - asks, ``Have you thought about sin lately? Have you thought about soul?'' ``No,'' he answers for us. ``We're much too modern.''
Modern or no, such is the metaphysical terrain of Mr. Bogosian's latest comic diatribe - part stand-up routine, part social satire, part impersonation - against American excesses and deficiencies.
One of the best of the new breed of solo performers, Bogosian gained recognition two years ago with his Obie Award-winning monologue ``Drinking in America.'' In that intense 80-minute performance piece, which was later broadcast on cable TV, Bogosian exhumed the misfit male psyche by playing a series of narcotized derelicts, from street bums to Hollywood producers, with a Lenny Bruce-like intensity.
Now, in ``New Americans,'' Bogosian goes beyond the chemicals to confront the chronic spiritual malady underneath.
Instead of substance abusers, the current corps of misfits are strung out on different excesses - fame, sex, religion, money, power. Together they are a rogues' gallery of American dreamers gone awry, who, in Bogosian's manic performance style, are no less funny - and no less disturbing - than Bogosian's earlier group of characters.
The 60-minute workshop production, which had its premi`ere at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, begins with the staccato stammer of a pacing street person who eventually locates himself - ``I'm between a rock and a hard place. But at least I know where I am.'' This sense of spiritual dislocation is traceable throughout his subsequent incarnations - an ex-druggie rock star now addicted to self-righteous piety (``Just say no''), a Donald Trump-style businessman (``If you don't look out for No. 1, there ain't gonna be any more numbers''), and a bar-hopping stud (``Someone's gotta live the dream; it might as well be me'').
Bogosian's characters come from the gutter as well as the board room - but they always speak from the gut. And Bogosian's writing skills capture this subliterate vernacular with an almost David Mamet-like talent to turn inarticulateness into white-hot - and frequently hilarious - communication.
Reinforced by impressive acting skills that range from pitch-perfect vocal mimicry to a gymnast's physicality, Bogosian doesn't just impersonate - he inhabits - the stances and words of his subjects.
On stage, he wears just jeans, a T-shirt, and an on-again, off-again sports jacket, but his transformations are as chameleonlike as Lily Tomlin's.
The accents are all over the map - Southern good ole boy, English rock star, Brooklyn cabdriver, or a nearly comatose person. And the actor uses his meaty hands to sculpt each character's particular presence - here a preacher flailing at his congregation, there a TV-scam man whipping a microphone cord back and forth, or a barfly nervously rubbing his thighs during a pickup attempt.
Much of what makes up ``New Americans'' Bogosian has done before. The show is essentially a sequel to ``Drinking in America,'' and it marks the actor's return to solo performance.
What's new about ``New Americans'' is Bogosian's improved pacing and a tonal and thematic juxtaposition that furthers the satire; the ruthless businessman is followed by the drug dealer, the pious ex-druggie by the TV preacher. And this time Bogosian has judiciously pruned the red herring of drug dependency from his writing to focus on the characters' psychological Angst.
But the show is weakened by a not-insignificant flaw that has nothing to do with Bogosian's sometimes tentative performance style in this workshop production, where he occasionally read from his script. Unlike ``Drinking in America,'' which was later edited for TV, ``New Americans'' was specifically commissioned for a forthcoming HBO telecast. And it shows. The 60-minute performance is crammed with more than a dozen characterizations; most last barely five minutes, and many are one-dimensional, one-joke sketches - a get-in, get-out impersonation style that, presumably, is just what the network ordered.
Though much of Bogosian's appeal comes from trying to guess, within the first few seconds, which American misfit he's portraying in a sort of East Village charade, the actor is most successful when his monologues begin in one place and end up in quite another, when he pushes his characters' fear and loathing into self-revelation.
In ``New Americans,'' Bogosian saved the best for the last - a benign-sounding plea by a father (``I want to be normal ... help my kids with their grades, have a hamburger my way...'') that is transmogrified into rabid fuming (``I hate people; I just want them to love me, tell me I'm great, and pay me''), before culminating in fierce resignation (``You have to be blind to be normal, which is why I'm so ecstatic to be in the depressing place I am'').
It's a searing coda that reinforces the show's rock-and-hard-place theme and skewers, in a one lethal swoop, sentiment, self-indulgence, and self-delusion.