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Eric Bogosian on moving back into ''subUrbia''

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Eric Bogosian, Law & Order: Criminal Intent
Eric Bogosian: Mitchell Haaseth

You thought Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead sounded rough. At age 53, Eric Bogosian has just entered one of the busiest seasons of his career: His play subUrbia is back Off Broadway; a revival of Talk Radio, starring Liev Schreiber, hits Broadway in February; and Bogosian is currently livening up Law and Order: Criminal Intent as the team’s new captain. The actor-playwright took a breather talk to EW.com about multitasking.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You started writing subUrbia in 1986, then the play and the movie were produced in the mid-’90s. How does it connect in 2006?
ERIC BOGOSIAN: I don’t think that things have changed so much. There is this reality of the world you live in: with your family, your friends, and your workplace. And then there is this other world where all the celebrities live, where they make movies, TV shows, recorded music. It’s all very exciting-looking, even more so today. We have people like Paris Hilton, who actually have no discernable talents, but because they live in that world they’re fascinating to somebody. But not to me — I actually made a movie [2003’s Wonderland] with Paris years ago.

Who are these kids in subUrbia, hanging around outside a 7-Eleven?
They’re young people who have aspirations to move beyond the limits of their small town, yet they do not really have the information they need in order to do that. I work with young city kids, and you’ll get guys who are 20 years old and they’ve just gotten out of jail. You ask them what they’re gonna do with their life and they say they are gonna be a hip-hop recording star. Everybody can’t be a hip-hop recording star; in fact, very few people can. And so, where does that lead you?

They’re confused. And then you say they become conservative.
There is a short interchange [in subUrbia] between Jeff and his girlfriend when he says, ”Idealism is guilty, middle-class bulls—,” and she says ”Cynicism is bulls—.” It’s hard to maintain an open and engaged relationship with the world if you’re being shut down, and in some ways that creates conservatism. These guys, who are about 20 — up to this point everything has sort of been figured out for them. Including that they are going to college. Then you get there and it starts to fall apart. It’s like, ”This isn’t what I thought it was going to be. So now what do I do?” There is no plan B for a lot of people — therefore, you’re a loser. If you’re not toeing the line with this sort of step-by-step approach, then you’re some kind of loser, which I don’t agree with.

The women in subUrbia are actually more open-minded, and the men are the ones closing into themselves.
Well, I think women are smarter than men. So I suppose I wasn’t consciously understanding what I was doing. The most affable character in the play is Buff [now played by Kieran Culkin], and he doesn’t have any concern for his fellow man. The person who ends up in the most tragic circumstances is Bee-Bee [Halley Feiffer], and she does more for other people than any of them do. I think [women] are more empathetic and just generally better people. I like women; I don’t like men.

What about Barry Champlain, your character in Talk Radio?
Well, I am a man. I have to live with all the contradictions built into being a man and Barry is part of that.

Tell me a little about how you work as a playwright. Do you write for character, or for dialogue?
I have to find characters who are at the cross hairs of something I’m interested in. In the case of Barry, he has this tremendous need to be appreciated and he’s found this way to do it, and as a result he’s getting into quicksand. So from there I can step off. As far as writing dialogue or monologue, I just write and write and write and write and write, and then I edit. There may be some writers who on the first pass get what they want. I’m pretty much at, well — 50 to 60 to 70 percent of what I write has to be thrown out before the finished project.

What kind of theater are you drawn to?
I saw two plays this year that I liked very much — one was very old and one was very new. Goethe’s Faust, Part I, which they did at CSC [New York’s Classic Stage Company], was incredible. The new play was Red Light Winter by Adam Rapp and I loved that too. I stayed interested. I think all I really want to do is stay interested. Theater is an event, so when you write for theater you’ve got to keep the event exciting, otherwise you’re just writing words. And if it was just about words, you could read it. That’s the secret of successful theater.

How did you end up on television?
I’m a theater person, but I grew up on TV and I’ve always liked movies. I don’t watch a lot of TV now, but if I do, I watch shows that emphasize acting — very chew-the-scenery-type acting, because that’s what I love…. The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire.

And Law & Order?
The tradition of Law & Order is part of that. It’s always featured New York actors, because that’s where it’s located. [They’re] always looking for terrific actors to come on and do guest spots. It’s very analogous to the old black-and-white Twilight Zones. Now we look back and say, ”Oh my god, there’s Burgess Meredith!” ”There’s so-and-so!” They were good actors. Everybody who was watching didn’t know [their] names, but it’s what gave those shows their torque.

Did Criminal Intent call you, or did you approach them?
I had put the word out for years that I wanted to do something on Law & Order, but somehow that information didn’t get to Law & Order. This very old friend of mine, [playwright] Warren Leight, is now running Criminal Intent, and he arranged for me to meet with [fellow exec producer] Dick Wolf. This is a type of acting that’s of real interest to me, because it’s not necessarily that visible to the audience. At the end of the day, I hope the audience enjoys the show more because I’m on it. But it’s a far cry from what I did on Talk Radio or Under Siege 2, where the whole point is to be like fireworks every time I’m on screen. This is the opposite.

Performances of subUrbia run through Oct. 29 at Second Stage in New York (tickets: 212-246-4422).

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