COMEDY / Talk on the wild side: Tristan Davies reviews Eric Bogosian's Dog Show at the Almeida

The sight of the solitary microphone stand was a bit of a let-down. Eric Bogosian has a couple of Obies to his name, a rave review from Frank Rich, the 'Butcher of Broadway', and he's written and starred in his own movie, the Oliver Stone-directed Talk Radio of 1988. He might at least have forked out on a decent set. Instead, it looked as though we were in for a night of standard-issue stand-up.

Live comedy is dominated by single white males who are all mouth and trousers and no stage-craft (if comedy really is the new rock 'n' roll, then it's a pity it seems to have adopted Bill Wyman as a role model). Bogosian, as it turns out, is one of the few who fill an empty stage to bursting point with little more than the sound of his own voice. His props are a repertoire of bodily tics, his quick-changes are from character to character, the sickos, winos, pushers and hustlers of his sets from Drinking in America to this, his latest, Dog Show.

This is due, in part, to the fact that Bogosian is a trained actor, but mainly it's because he's not really a comic in the conventional sense at all. Sure, he's funny, but the laughter he trades in is guilt-edged. A bitch about the rich subverts chaos theory to amusing effect: the streets have been fouled by the dogs who ate the cats who ate the fish who ate the puke of the guy on the yacht who overdid the steak tartare - but it is delivered by a beggar who scratches his bitter and twisted body in a monologue of such foul-mouthed ferocity that it would make David Mamet wince.

Bogosian has no interest in winning you over, being your friend, having a laugh. He follows his first searing monologue - a scene-setting, slow-time rap for his carnival of animals - with the customary 'It's great to be here' ice-breaker, but it is not the usual stuff of showbiz smarm. Exploiting the relief which greets his switch from sinister street poet to smiling host, he feeds out a line of rapprochement weighted with goofy psychobabble ('I like you looking at me, I want to get naked, let me show you all I can be'). Then he takes up the slack and strikes with a devastating mood-swing that reveals the stand-up as just another paranoid member of his cast of crazies ('This is my life up here. Who needs you?').

Bogosian is often compared to Lenny Bruce. This may be because he is an angry performer with a colourful vocabulary (his frequent use of the expression 'blow me' has nothing to do with a nostalgic affection for working-class characters in Ealing comedies), but also because he bears a slight resemblance to the legendary taboo-breaker. Truth is, Bogosian can look like anyone he wants to. He is a master of disguise, though he never changes out of his black jeans, boots and T-shirt. His ability to morph from one character to another is staggering. In his anonymous junkies, fixers and party animals there are shades of more recognisable ghosts. Hunched around the microphone, he is Antony Sher's Richard III; leaning upon a stick, he is Dustin Hoffman's Ratso in Midnight Cowboy; running off at the mouth with a nasal, amphetamine-charged whine, he is Dennis Hopper's photographer in Apocalypse Now.

Each act of madness and desperation portrayed by this gifted 'charactician' is dazzling in its own right, each a perfect medium for his thoughts on greed, deceit and self-delusion. But at the end of 90 minutes you feel as if you have sat in judgement on a series of brilliant audition pieces. That you'd give him the part is in no doubt, it's just that it would be in a dozen plays or films he's yet to complete.

Eric Bogosian's Dog Show continues at the Almeida, London N1 to Saturday. Box office: 071 359-4404

(Photographs omitted)