When Drinking in America, written and performed by three-time Obie winner Eric Bogosian, made its Off-Broadway debut in 1986, it garnered both an Obie and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. It’s now back Off-Broadway for a limited engagement at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theatre (where Bogosian was last seen in his 1994 Obie-winning play Pounding Nails in the Floor), starring stage and screen favorite Andre Royo (best known for his role as Bubbles in HBO’s The Wire) in the darkly funny, psychologically penetrating, and socially scathing non-linear collection of a dozen short character sketches on the theme of substance abuse, of both alcohol and drugs, among an eclectic assortment of American males. It’s a tour-de-force performance that brings insight into our ideas of masculinity, class, pressure, and self-worth, delivers the sardonic laughs about bad behavior, and generates empathy for the lives of the less fortunate, who have turned to addiction to escape the reality of their everyday lives.
Under the fluid direction of Mark Armstrong, the casually dressed and personable Royo takes the stage and directly addresses the audience, laughing, joking, chatting, interacting, and comfortably letting us get to know him. We soon realize he’s already into the first vignette, and his totally believable embodiment of the series of figures he portrays never falters through his flawless characterizations (with dialect and vocal coaching by Kate Wilson) and seamless transitions from one to the next for the duration of the show. Each man and every situation is different – from a college student on acid, drunk and drugged out street people beseeching passersby, and a casting agent snorting coke at 9 am, to a guy happily recounting the story of being out with a gang of his friends for a fun night of partying that turns into a crime spree – and each is a recognizable and familiar person we’ve known, encountered, or seen in our culture.
But it’s not just about drinking and drug use. The show also delves into the intoxicating effects of power, money, sex, ego, and the American Dream. In his captivating and thought-provoking portrayals of a man blaming the woman he’s with for his erectile dysfunction, a traveling salesman (with a wife at home) in a hotel room with an escort, a voiceover actor doing a commercial selling a top-shelf beer, an immigrant working for a better life, an unimpassioned middle-class man with no problems in his ostensibly perfect life, and a reactionary preacher inciting his followers, Royo takes us on a deep dive into the men’s psyches, exploring the constructs of toxic masculinity, male fragility, and male entitlement (presciently addressed here by Bogosian in the mid-80s, even before the terms came into widespread usage).
There are some dated mentions of the famous (actors Lee Marvin, Robert Vaughan, Vince Edwards, and Richard Chamberlain, and trailblazing politician Harvey Milk) and infamous (subway vigilante Bernie Getz and porn publisher Larry Flint) from the time in which the show was written. But they serve as salient indicators of issues that are as timely today as they were in 1986, and telling reference points to what still hasn’t changed in the intervening decades (in-demand stars vs “has-beens,” the ongoing battle for gay rights, rampant crime on the streets and subways, and the sexploitation of women).
Royo’s powerful deliveries are given focus and support by Kristen Robinson’s sparse scenic design (with three different widely spaced chairs, a table and lamp, a desk with a vintage phone, and a backwall with a doorway and window that open at key moments, all allowing the actor to move around, to roll around, and to collapse on the stage), dramatic lighting by Jeff Croiter and sound by John Gromada that define the moods and locales of the stories (mostly envisioned in our mind’s eye through Bogosian’s descriptive language and Royo’s engrossing portrayals), and Sarita Fellows’ costumes, which the actor quickly and easily changes without missing a beat.
If you can’t make it to the theater, an audio version of Andre Royo’s stellar performance of Drinking in America will also be recorded and released globally at a later date as an Audible Original.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes, without intermission.
Drinking in America plays through Saturday, April 8, 2023, at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC. For tickets (priced at $53-98, plus fees), go online. Masks are encouraged but not required.