Eric Bogosian can be a street bum, a TV evangelist, a drug-wasted punk or a motor-mouth DJ. His characters spew venom and foul language; they reek of self-absorption, hypocrisy and addictions of every conceivable variety.
Even the more upwardly mobile types who populate "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" -- the anthology of monologues he'll be performing Saturday and next Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- resemble something you'd scrape off the bottom of your shoe.
Yet the 37-year-old Mr. Bogosian (pronounced bo-GO-shun) readily admits, "The characters definitely have something in common with me. They're basically offshoots of the sides of myself that perplex me. If I have an angry side or an aggressive side or a misogynistic side or a homophobic side or a racist side, I draw a character right out from that facet of myself so I can look at it better."
In fact, in a phone conversation from his office in New York's Little Italy, he claims they are so much a part of his personality that he can barely express himself without a character to lean on.
"I'm not a philosopher. I don't think in complete sentences," he insists. "I have to dramatize it so I can get at the complete idea."
But the truth is, Mr. Bogosian comes across as highly articulate, thoughtful and -- unlike his loud, relentless performing style -- even soft-spoken.
"Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" is the fourth anthology piece he has compiled and performed over the past decade, and he considers it his monologue swan song. Furthermore, the Baltimore engagement, presented as part of the museum's Off the Walls series of contemporary performances, will be one of the last times he performs the show live.
Next month it is being published in hardback by HarperCollins. And in August it will be released as a feature film by Avenue Pictures, directed by John McNaughton, best known for "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer."
"This particular field has been played out for me for a while," Mr. Bogosian says. "I guess I want to try to go back to exploring other ways to reach an audience, either writing bigger pieces or playing different kinds of roles."
Actually, he has already had a taste of bigger pieces and different roles. Besides appearances on "Miami Vice," "Crime Story" and "The Twilight Zone," he played Lt. Barney Greenwald, the defense attorney, in the 1988 television version of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," directed by Robert Altman. Later that year, Oliver Stone directed him in the movie, "Talk Radio," based on the play he wrote with Tad Savinar about an abusive, late-night talk-show host.
"Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" indirectly evolved out of that movie. "I got to experience the high life and the luxury life for a while when the film was being distributed, and I got to experience big paychecks," Mr. Bogosian explains. "It really made me question the whole logic of 'The most exciting life is the best life. . . . If it feels good, do it. The faster it is, the better it is. . . .'
"Just as I have come to new terms with the whole notion of life in the fast lane, I think the rock-hard evidence around me also has shown that there's something intrinsically bad about drugs. There's a plague
that's ripping through our country that comes from sex, and rock and roll particularly is a place where I got a lot of my ideals, and I find it to be a hypocritical swamp at this time."
Unlike monologuists such as Spalding Gray -- who was part of last year's Off the Walls series -- Mr. Bogosian doesn't create autobiographical pieces. Thematically, however, each of his shows has reflected a phase of his life.
His earliest monologue, "Men Inside," "was a very severe and straightforward piece. There was no attempt to entertain the audience or make anybody laugh," he says. But audiences were entertained anyway; in 1982 the show was produced at New York's Public Theater and brought him his first serious critical recognition.
The next year Mr. Bogosian created "FunHouse." "I was very poor," he says, "and my general mood was pretty freaked all the time. The show was about fear and living on the edge, and it was a very aggressive and nasty piece." But it also attracted a following. Besides running off-Broadway for several months, it was filmed in half-hour and full-length versions.
After that, he says, "I continued to pursue the various dark forces in me. I became quite nuts. By 1984 I had to let go of the whole lifestyle I had become enmeshed in -- a combination of poverty and drugs and living on the edge. I sort of settled down and made 'Drinking in America,' which is about all of the things that intoxicate us."
Mr. Bogosian has abstained from drugs and alcohol for 6 1/2 years now. He quit after realizing that "my life had become very predictable. I was reaching a kind of stasis. . . . I was in a rut. I knew I had to do something. I did what everybody does who tries to get off drugs and drink, and it worked -- at least for the time being."
He bases all of his shows on the fundamentals of "questioning and skepticism and freedom. Those are the things I see as high points of being human," he says. "You watch me do the character and you go, 'What's wrong with this picture?' "
What's frequently wrong is that something is missing. "I think I'm like a lot of people in the country today who are looking back at primary spiritual values and saying, 'Why is it I have to keep finding something to fill this void in me?' Almost every one of my characters is off center, lacking some kind of spiritual center and seeking some way to fill the hole," he explains.
Despite the hostile reactions his performances have been known to provoke, Mr. Bogosian claims, "I don't think my first goal is to upset the audience. My first goal is to actually please the audience. I imagine a room full of people like me who want to see someone do something smart and funny."
And though there are still occasional walkouts, it's been years since he's met with a backlash as violent as the time enraged theatergoers pelted him with beer cans in Berlin.
Could this mean that angry, egotistical Eric Bogosian -- a friend once dubbed him "Egosian" -- has mellowed? That's what his current projects suggest. For a change, he's writing a play in which he doesn't plan to appear. Titled, "Suburbia," it's about a group of young men in a town not unlike the Boston suburb where he grew up -- Woburn, Mass., a place he describes as "between working class and middle class."
There's ample evidence that his personal life has mellowed as well. When he's not working, he spends most of his time on his 10-acre New Jersey estate with his wife, Australian-born Jo Bonney -- director of "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" -- and their 4-year-old son, Harris. (In addition, he maintains an apartment in New York as well as his Little Italy office, which doubled as his residence in leaner days.)
Mr. Bogosian's other major project is probably the best evidence of mellowing. It's a new film adaptation of James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" for the Samuel Goldwyn Co. And he definitely wants to star in this one.
Wild-eyed Eric Bogosian as wimpy Walter Mitty? The performer insists they have a lot in common.
"The reason I act is because I like to fantasize," he says. "I identify with him very strongly. It's a whole side of myself that people don't see pretty often."
Off the Walls at the BMA
Here are coming performances in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Off the Walls series:
*"Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll," by Eric Bogosian. March 23 at 8 p.m.; March 24 at 4 p.m. Tickets are $15.
*"Blanket," by Ann Carlson. A choreographic solo piece examining a woman's life through fragments of her past. May 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $9.
*"Love of a Poet," by John Kelly. A mixed-media ode to romantic love. June 8 at 8 p.m.; June 9 at 4 p.m. Tickets are $9.
All performances are in the museum auditorium. For more information call 396-6314.
--J. Wynn Rousuck