Kids in the Sprawl

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It's rare that an actor sums up in his performance all the deeper meanings of a play, but that's precisely what happens when Ryan McCarthy is on the loose in Eric Bogosian's subUrbia at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. As Tim Mitchum, racist alcoholic, Air Force dropout and general malcontent, McCarthy dominates the stage of the Shimberg Playhouse, sending out wave after wave of hostile energy and menacing everyone he encounters, from his best friend Jeff Gallagher to the Pakistani owner of the 7-Eleven where he hangs out.

In Ryan's masterful portrayal, Tim is an accident waiting to happen, a vessel under pressure that might explode at any moment. And he's never far from a provocation — from Norman, the exasperated convenience store owner, from Pony, the former friend who's gone on to rock 'n' roll success, or from Erica, the big city publicist who finds hometown boys attractive. Fuming and raging, storming across the stage or downing another beer, Tim is any young American with excess energy and no values, an obsession with bravery but no worthy quest, a hatred of others only slightly stronger than his self-hatred.

As such, he seems to embody Bogosian's message: that our landscape is a breeding ground of lives without purpose, and that the natural byproducts of such lives are anger, contempt and violence. Ten hard-working sociologists couldn't communicate this theme more convincingly than McCarthy's superb, carefully drawn performance, which is easily the high point of this Jobsite Theater production.

Characterization in subUrbia matters so much because there's really not much plot here. Outside Brian Smallheer's nicely realistic set of a suburban 7-Eleven, three young men hang out, eat pizza and talk. 21-year-old Tim Mitchum is a bigot: "I've been to the "Third World'," he says. "It smells like you wiped your ass and made a country out of the paper. The people are dog-eating, monkey-faced greaseballs."

Jeff Gallagher, 20, is more politically aware, and also more anxious about the life he and his friends are leading: "Fifty years from now, we'll all be dead and there'll be new people standing here drinking beer and eating pizza ... and they won't even know we were ever here. ... It's all so fucking futile!" And Buff Macleod is a Rollerblading, 20-year-old, latter-day hippie whose focus is entirely on pleasure: "Every morning while I'm doing my abs I check out Sesame Street. There's this babe on the show, she's like a total fox. Does porno tapes on the side."

The three guys' nemesis is Norman, the owner of the 7-Eleven. Tim hates him because he's a foreigner; but the others distrust him as the representative of an adult, responsible attitude towards life and work. On several occasions, Norman comes out of his store to tell the three to disperse; and each time he does, the confrontation threatens to turn ugly.

Into this crowd come two young women, Sooze and Bee-Bee. Sooze is an aspiring performance artist and Jeff's girlfriend; she's thinking of going to New York, where "the worst I could do is starve to death." Bee-Bee is her friend, a nurse's aide and former alcoholic who claims to have been "rehabilitated." The two women are waiting for Pony, a fellow townie who now fronts a nationally known rock band. When Pony arrives — in a stretch limo, accompanied by attractive publicist Erica — he stimulates admiration, resentment and some real anger. Jeff feels insulted by a line in one of his songs, Sooze senses correctly that Pony is coming on to her, and Tim simply despises this man whose success points up his own failures.

There's more drinking and more pressure and finally a couple of guns are pulled.

McCarthy's is not the only acting that shines here. Mark Trent is virtually perfect as hippie-sensualist Buff, who seems permanently stoned and literally bounces across the set and into the faces of the other characters. Chris Holcom gives one of his best performances ever as card-carrying pessimist Jeff, and Dan Khoury as store-owner Norman couldn't be more persuasive. There's also fine work by Ami Sallee Corley as sexually aggressive Erica, the only character who briefly surprises Tim, and who may or may not find him too much of a challenge.

David Jenkins as rock star Pony is pleasantly low-key, but sings unconvincingly and lacks celebrity charisma; while Katrina Stevenson, usually a dependable actress, never shows us the qualities that make both Jeff and Pony desire Sooze. Finally, Summer Bohnenkamp-Jenkins is quietly charming in the underwritten part of Bee-Bee, and Grace Santos is fine as Norman's sister Pakeesa. Paul Potenza's staging is muscular and precise; it's a pleasure to discover that this talented actor is also a skillful director.

subUrbia's not without flaws: Jeff's world-weariness can sound sophomoric, and Bogosian seems undecided about which of four potential deaths should provide the play's climax. Further, the Jobsite production starts and ends with live singing that feels uncomfortably amateur. Even so, this is a serious play about contemporary America, with often wonderful acting, tight, thoughtful directing and intelligent design. See it for its script or for its several examples of terrific acting. And prepare to be impressed by Ryan McCarthy as Tim, a young man who, with a mission in life, might easily be a hero and a genuine leader.

In surUrbia he lacks that mission. And the result is rage, drunkenness — and danger.

Support Your Contemporary Composers The Tampa Bay Composers' Forum is presenting its annual String Quartet Concert at the Palladium Theater on Friday, June 21 at 8 p.m.

The program includes David Manson's "Forces in Motion," Lennie Naeyaert's First String Quartet, Marshall Ocker's Third String Quartet with Soprano, Joseph Ierna's "An Ode to Bela," Troy Lennerd's "Miniatures for String Quartet," and Peter Blauvelt's Fifth String Quartet. The pieces by Manson, Naeyaert and Ierna are world premieres. Playing the various works will be the Composers' Forum Quartet: Myra Lin and Kim Padgett, violins; Beth Argiro, viola; and Elle Retzer, cello.

Tickets cost $10, $8 for students and seniors, and are available at the Palladium box office, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg. Call 727-822-3590.

Contact Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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