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Buy one of the following Eric Bogosian books from amazon.com:

'The Essential Bogosian: Talk Radio, Drinking in America, Funhouse & Men Inside' (1994)

'Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll' (1990)

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Off the Grid: A vacation in the woods turns deadly when the lights go out on Saxon Palmer (left) and Andy Murray in 'Humpty Dumpty.'

Cracking the Egg

San Jose Repertory Theatre explores the fragile shell of civilization in its West Coast premiere of Eric Bogosian's 'Humpty Dumpty'

By Marianne Messina

THE Humpty Dumpty Dilemma: glue, mortar or omelette? We've all had unsettling glimpses of the "silence"--that place where the phones don't ring and our hand-held appointment screen goes blank. Actor and author Eric Bogosian's new play, Humpty Dumpty, takes two urbane couples to that place by dropping them in a backwoods getaway and cutting off the power grid.

"It's obvious how dependent we are on the huge infrastructure that surrounds us," says Bogosian, author of Talk Radio and subUrbia. "And if this got interrupted, we would be very vulnerable; we'd be like turtles outside of our shells."

When the play opens, these shells have stock elements: Spoon, the navel-gazing flower-grandchild; Troy, the hedonistic elitist; Max, the self-doubting artist; and Nicole, "Miss In-charge," as actress Elizabeth Hanly Rice calls her.

Like the high rollers in a David Mamet film, these characters' "self-awareness" approaches self-congratulation. Max derogates the "masses ... all those average citizens who don't live in New York or L.A. and who read People Magazine and watch the Oscars," to which his wife, Nicole, replies, "We read People Magazine and watch the Oscars." And Max retorts, "Yes, yes. But we do it ironically."

Bogosian shows us that the ironic pose is as fragile as Humpty's shell, disintegrating in the face of dead cell phones, closed gas stations and spoiling caviar. To project this inner unraveling of his characters, Bogosian gives us wonderfully vivid action. For example, as Max feels more and more useless, he derives his raison d'être from an escalating compulsion to chop firewood. Nicole hits her turning point when she badly slices her finger.

"Her core personality actually shifts," Bogosian tell us, "just like there was an earthquake or something."

The play-long progress of the wound tracks Nicole's metamorphosis through what Hanly Rice describes as a "huge journey."

Though the play tries to be about Nicole and Max, about identity and relationships and what grounds them beneath the surface, kismet, it seems, has other themes in mind. The events of 9/11 required changes to Humpty Dumpty. When San Jose Repertory director John McCluggage saw the play's first version last spring in New Jersey, he noted the conspicuous lack of reference to 9/11. "You have to acknowledge that we all spent a time in our existence where we looked up in the sky and didn't see a single plane," he says, echoing a line added to the play.

As a result, McCluggage assisted Bogosian in reworking the script. Now its second production, at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, runs into a war, which makes it hard to overlook themes around the way we draw battle lines and exaggerate cultural differences in the face of uncertainty. In Humpty Dumpty, a cultural divide falls out between urban and rural, local and foreign. Troy, for example, belittles the local handyman, Nat, who grew up in the woods and treats power outages as normal fare. Nat "just needs a roof and the simple things in life," explains Hanly Rice. But Troy sums Nat up with "It must be so rewarding ... doing yard work for a living. Being illiterate. Having sex with sheep."

A lot like a soldier in a foreign land, Troy progresses to looting the vacant cottages nearby. Later, when he comes across several locals butchering a cow, he looks one of them in the eyes and decides, "This guy hates me. He doesn't know me, but he hates me, because he knows I don't belong here." Troy's need to reconstruct Humpty precipitates a psychological descent into a kind of war preparedness that begins by alienating the cultural Other and ends by demonizing it.

As their romantic converted barn becomes a surreal cocoon, the characters try to maintain vestiges of "home," like American soldiers in the Iraqi desert bestrewing their tanks with family photos. References to "out there" indicate the characters' sense that they're under siege. "Driving out there, it feels like a foreign country," Max says. "So dark. Everything abandoned." Later, Nicole refuses to leave the cottage, saying, "God! Out there, out there ... I can't!"

Hanly Rice uses similar terms to explain the attraction her character, Nicole, feels toward Nat. "At a certain point he represents to her ... it's like going to another country and finding someone who speaks that language, who can sort of guide you through that country."

The only character who does not view "out there" as a hostile environment is Spoon. Instead, she embraces it, inviting the others out on nature walks while they remain huddled next to the fire. Having less need to put Humpty back together, Spoon entertains the notion of a new Egg Man. She is the only character who negotiates with the "enemy" or tries to learn the language. Granted, she gets mixed results. "It isn't all wonderful for Spoon," Bogosian says, "but there's a hopeful aspect."

In the end, audiences will have to decide for themselves where to find hope in a broken egg.


Humpty Dumpty previews March 26 at noon and 8pm and March 27 at 8pm. The play opens March 28 at 8pm and runs Tuesday-Sunday through April 20 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $20-$40. (408.367.7262). Playwright Bogosian will attend the opening-night reception at 5:30pm Stratta Grill. Tickets are $50.


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From the March 27-April 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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