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A CurtainUp DC Review: Griller

by Dolores Whiskeyman 

On his 50th birthday, the average man probably does look back on his life and wonder if he made the best of it. Most men, it's safe to wager, don't do it while frying up steaks on a $5,000 barbecue. 

But Gussie does -- and the party he throws in celebration of this major milestone gives him the kind of opportunity for reflection that most of us can only dream of -- and be glad we don't have. 

Gussie is the title character of Griller, Eric Bogosian's slight new comedy, which opened Nov. 18 at CenterStage in Baltimore. Best known as a writer/performer of one-man mind-trips, Bogosian won Obies for Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead. In Griller as in his solo work, Bogosian reveals a keen ear for psychobabble ("You have to stay centered, or you're fucked") and a wry perspective on the hollowness of the American Dream. But Griller is flaccid in comparison. Just as you think you're going somewhere, you find you haven't really moved. Only Bogosian serves up so many laughs along with the steaks and beer that you don't really notice. 

Director David Warren has assembled a fine cast that delivers uniformly solid performances on Derek McLane's eye-pleasing set. Susan Hilferty's costumes and Donald Holder's lighting design support the story beautifully. As a package, Griller is journeyman work. 

So pass the Bud and sit back as Gussie (David Garrison) fires up the grill and gathers his family -- an embittered sister, a daft mother, and a darling nephew, along with his embittered daughter, embittered son and loving wife -- to celebrate his big day in the company of Nick (Henry Woronicz) an old college buddy who, for reasons never made clear to anyone, decides to drop by. Nick is a Hollywood producer now and arrives with the requisite blonde beauty (a.k.a. 'bimbo'). She is, of course, unpleasant, and takes off in a huff almost immediately, which bothers Nick not in the least. 

Nick, it seems, has managed to go through life unbothered by "other people's shit," as he tells Gussie. This philosophy turns out to be less than exemplary, as Gussie later discovers. But not before Nick sets forth to stir up trouble by attempting to seduce first Michelle, Gussie's wife (Caitlin Clarke) and then his daughter, Dylan (Chelsea Altman) and finally his sister Gloria (Cheryl Giannini), although this seduction is an emotional one -- the suggestion that her pitiably untalented child could have some prospects as an actor. 

Nick epitomizes success American style -- a guy in a white suit, with lots of money, multiple houses, and plenty of women. This lush life of celebrity contrasts with the more modest success of Gussie, who's got nothing to be ashamed of himself. Gussie long ago cashed in his prospects as a flower child to open a lucrative travel agency. Now he is the owner of a 14,000 square foot house, complete with gazebo, greenhouse and pool, and of course, a sonic barbecue outfitted with an icemaker. 

But when Nick arrives, Gussie is thrown into self-doubt. Did he cash it all in for no reason? Surely not, he assures himself, looking around at his family. But of course, the family -- except for his wife -- detests him. His sister screams at him for not listening to her, his son rages at his inability to sympathize with the pressures of life on Wall Street, his daughter -- well she's just pissed off in general, but Bogosian forgets to explain why, exactly. Gussie is an indulgent father, giving Dylan money to meet her rent and tolerating her outbursts with insights such as this: "You wanna live in a crummy neighborhood with hookers and drug dealers, go ahead. You gotta go through that shit. But don't let it get you down." 

Then again, maybe we do know why Dylan finds Gussie so contemptible -- it's that boneheaded optimism that pervades his worldview and leads him to equate a $5,000 barbecue with Nirvana. But in the end, Gussie is not much the wiser for his trouble and neither are we. The fire is out, the cake is floating in the swimming pool, but Michelle is just as pleased with Gussie as she was at curtain's rise, and Gussie, after some reflection, decides his life is okay after all. Bogosian then closes his tale of suburban maladjustment with Grandma reminiscing about her girlhood and the old country -- a coda that suggests he thinks Griller is about shattered dreams. And maybe it is. 

But the impact is muted. Content to draw his characters with broad strokes, Bogosian never quite comes into focus. Motivations are noticeably absent, especially for Nick and Michelle. What is Nick's agenda, after all, in coming to see someone that he hasn't seen in years? Why does he show up suddenly and pursue Michelle and then lose interest? She resists and he drops it. Is he just pure Id? Someone who acts on impulse with no thought to consequence? And what does Michelle make of that? She has no part in unmasking Nick to Gussie. In fact, she has no real role at all, save to hang around and tell Gussie what a great guy he is. That her children are estranged from her husband does not seem to be an issue for her, and yet she is presented as an otherwise loving woman -- strange that she would not somehow be more troubled by the trouble around her. 

For all its merits in production, Griller as a text does not hold up well under close inspection. It's rather like a backyard barbecue where the host serves great beer and the guests are all good-looking, but not especially smart. You'll have a fun time, all right, but you won't remember it for long.
by Eric Bogosian

Directed by David Warren
with David Garrison, Caitlin Clarke, Drew Ansbacher, Christopher Field, Cheryl Giannini, Scotty Bloch, Chelsea Altman, Josh Radnor, Henry Woronicz and Vera Cox. 
Set Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Donald Holder 
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty 
Composer/Sound Designer: John Gromada
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including one intermission 
CenterStage, 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore (410) 332-0033 
Opened Nov. 18, closes Dec. 19, 1999 
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Nov. 29 based on a Nov. 27 performance 
©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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