Beat Down

The revival of Tom O’Neil’s Kerouac opens auspiciously. As a frenetic jazz track plays in the background, we observe the fabled writer of On the Road and other tales of the Beat Generation, typing feverishly at a Royal manual typewriter. The play’s program promises appearances by Jack Kerouac’s fascinating colleagues, partners in crime and fellow travelers, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This reunion has all the makings of a juicy and captivating spectacle. Unfortunately, even at only an hour long, Kerouac quickly becomes tedious and ultimately fails to satisfy. The play takes place on the evening of Kerouac’s death. Though appearing much younger and far less weathered than the 47-year-old author would have looked in October 1969, actor John William Schiffbauer certainly fits the romantic, idealized part. Handsome, wearing summer loungewear and casual slacks, he resembles the youthful version of the writer in many of the photographs that survive.

As Kerouac retches from cirrhosis of the liver in his final hours, the ghosts of Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and even a prostitute named "Red" appear to him. While Cassady pre-deceased Kerouac by some 20 months, Ginsberg didn’t actually die until 1997, so perhaps these ghosts are more accurately projections of Kerouac’s alcohol-drenched imagination.

Whatever they are, these projections sure do have bones to pick with the dying beatnik and with each other, and Kerouac has some choice words for them as well. Ceaselessly rehashing old and fairly well-documented rows, the characters berate each other for wasting prodigious talents, sleeping with each other’s lovers, being poseurs and posturers, being “full of crap,” and on and on, ad nauseum. Occasionally, the characters are given lines that seem more appropriate for the 1980s or even later. For example, at one point Cassady improbably utters, in something like valley speak, “Oh…my…Gawd!”

Casandera M.J. Lollar’s costume design works well for Schiffbauer but Halleluyah Walcott as Neal Cassady and Adam Thomas Smith as Allen Ginsberg resemble models from a J. Crew catalog, gearing up for a casual Friday at the office. Justin Field’s lighting is appropriately dim, like a jazz club or a lonely room, and Michael Flanagan’s direction is crisp, but neither can compensate for the script’s drawbacks.

Ginsberg, curiously, looks more like an accountant than a wild-haired poet, and is painted, perhaps inadvertently, as an annoyingly schoolmarmish and opportunistic entrepreneur, proudly tuned into the real world of publishing, chastising the other two for dumbly chasing women and alcohol. While Ginsberg was unquestionably a tireless promoter, responsible for much of the attention the Beats received, the reality is that Kerouac devoted as much time as did any of the them to seeking publication; he was relentless in getting On the Road and his earlier The Town and the City published.

Cassady, for his part, comes off primarily as a woman-stealing parasite, a soulless thief and con artist supreme. While he was all of these things, to an extent, and while all the Beats had serious moral failings, they were also complicated and torn individuals. Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty, the hero of On the Road, was far more than a con man, and that simply doesn’t come through in this play. For example, his rambling 16,000 letter to Kerouac actually inspired the latter’s stylistic technique for that groundbreaking work.

Also in the room with the expiring Kerouac are the projections of two freelance writers (Mickey Pizzo and William Gozdziewski), pouring over books, arguing over money and honing Kerouac’s 300-word obituary, due the next morning. One writer wants to play up Kerouac’s “womanizing” and scandals from the past while the other wants to emphasize Kerouac’s humanity and passion for the sacredness of life and sensuality, and experimentation and madness in the name of art. Their presence, while temporarily relieving the constant bickering of the three leads, does little to move the play forward.

There is little doubt that Jack Kerouac was a sour man at the end of his life. Drunk much of the time, bigoted and burned out, he disdained the flourishing hippie movement that he and his Beat compatriots had spawned. Yet, there is ample evidence that his many Beat comrades, particularly Ginsberg, revered him as the flawed but once holy catalyst of their own movement and, indeed, honored his accomplishments intensely, despite his numerous weaknesses, until the very end. They knew he was more than the sum of his parts; this play only gives us unsavory bits.

O’Neil portrays Kerouac best in a short soliloquy he gives Schiffbauer. In this all-too-brief absence of the Ginsberg and Cassady characters pointing fingers at each other, Kerouac poignantly attempts to encapsulate his beliefs, passions and desires.

Here are three of the most important and exciting literary and counter-cultural figures of the 20th century. Yet, they are not at all interesting in Kerouac. O’Neil’s nearly exclusive fixation on the sniping and bitterness seems to have missed much of these men and their real importance. None of the three leads has the necessary depth or immersion in their characters to portray these complex figures; consequently, each seems one-dimensionally acidic—as someone you want to flee from, rather than get to know.

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