Monday, October 15, 2012

Meet the Beats

Merrimack Rep takes the Kerouac legend off-road with Beat Generation.
Last weekend Merrimack Rep played host to a minor - maybe even a major - literary event: the world premiere of Lowell homeboy Jack Kerouac's only play, Beat Generation, in a staged reading directed by artistic director Charles Towers, and performed in concert with a Kerouac conference at UMass Lowell.

And it proved an intriguing evening - although to answer what I assume is your big question: is Beat Generation dramatically viable?  Alas, no; it's of biographic and academic interest only - clearly a first draft abandoned in a drawer as soon as the mood that spawned it had waned.  But its very tossed-off quality enhances its cinéma vérité atmosphere (you can spot just about every player in the Kerouac posse in its thinly disguised cast of characters), and it provides a touching corrective to the hip, outlaw image of Kerouac that has slowly replaced in our consciousness the alienated, tormented man himself.

In short, you won't recognize Kerouac in this play - well, you might if you were perceptive enough to appreciate the passivity of his authorial presence (as opposed to voice) in On the Road (I haven't read the other books).  In Beat Generation, tellingly enough it's Neal Cassady, the man whose charisma pulled Kerouac onto that eponymous highway, who appropriates the novel's voice, getting all the jazzy riffs, and rattling on in an endless, spontaneous cadence identical to that of the famous "scroll" from which Kerouac derived his magnum opus.  Kerouac, for his part, mostly just listens.  It's almost enough to make you wonder - just who is really narrating On the Road, anyway?

It must also be admitted, however, that Beat Generation hardly cracks the code of Cassady's personal aura (a nimbus that the team at Merrimack was unable to conjure either).  Cassady, of course, looms behind much hipster culture like a kind of ghost - or silent, bisexual god; he inspired not only Kerouac's masterpiece, but also figured in the oeuvre of Allen Ginsberg, and later mixed it up with Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary - in the meantime inspiring a range of golden American cowboys with homoerotic subtexts, ranging from the buddies of Route 66 to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

A drifter blessed with intense physical charisma (you can feel it in the photo below) who struggled intermittently to be a family man, Cassady related to Kerouac in some strange mode that oscillated between brotherly love, disinterest, and sexual obsession (at least on Kerouac's part; Cassady thought nothing of dumping Jack when he felt like it, which is in effect how On the Road sputters to a stop).  I think it's worth noting here that the poet Allen Ginsberg (the openly gay member of this particular posse) penned paeans to Cassady's penis, and even Kerouac was in awe of his buddy's "enormous dangle" - while Cassady's artsier girlfriends sometimes sketched portraits of it (I'm not kidding).  What can I say, it must have been something special - as you might expect, as it basically sired the entire Beat generation.

Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady, in a photo by Allen Ginsberg from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid days.
But like many a libertine, Cassady was intensely self-destructive, and he paid for his pleasures by dying at the early age of 41 - slipping into a coma while wandering along a Mexican railway (Kerouac died from alcohol only a year later, in 1969, at age 47).  They had long since drifted apart, anyhow - and Beat Generation could possibly mark the beginning of that rift, for it traces a kind of "Long Day's Journey into Beat," during which Kerouac (or "Buck," played by Tony Crane) trails after Cassady (or "Milo," played by Joey Collins), just as he did in On the Road, from a friend's apartment to the racetrack - and then finally back to Milo/Cassady's home, where among the wife and kids Cassady's hipster mask suddenly drops, and Kerouac is left out in the yard in his sleeping bag, abandoned again.

It could be a poignant story of an alcoholic little-boy-lost, but Kerouac clearly had few skills as a dramatist, and with minimal rehearsal time, Towers and company managed minimal theatrical shaping until the last act (more on that in a minute).  And as Kerouac/Buck, actor Tony Crane proved an intriguing presence, but seemed more interested in impersonating a sexy icon (Kerouac was a looker, too, as you can see below) than actually limning any of the tensions that surfaced in the script (when Cassady demands that Kerouac shine his shoe, for instance, Crane simply did so with a happy smile).  Meanwhile, as Cassady, actor Joey Collins seemed overwhelmed by the sheer torrents of verbiage he was required to deliver about karmic cats and moonbeams and such; with little happening as subtext to these harangues, it was hard to imagine him attracting any disciples.

Hey, Jack Kerouac - the man himself.
Still, things edged up hill over the first two acts - the second, at the race track, clearly has some potential.  And then suddenly the last scene was weirdly compelling - its centerpiece an interview with some kind of Transylvanian bishop that came off here as a sketch penned by Harold Pinter and directed by Roman Polanski.  Suddenly I was reminded of much that has been forgotten about Kerouac - he was no Buddhist hipster, but a devout Catholic, for instance.  And the scene is one of the few instances of dramatic writing I can think of that powerfully distills what it's like to be drugged, and perceiving social interactions in a warped way.

The whole thing played like a hallucination, to be honest, anchored by one of the most bizarre performances I have ever seen, from actor Seumas Sargent, as the innocently vampiric bishop.  And the whole cast suddenly seemed to pull itself into top form, perhaps because nobody had any long soliloquies to deliver - even as actor Ari Butler did a clever little comic cameo as an amusingly heterosexual Allen Ginsberg.  The mood was still far too straight in general, I suppose - but the scene seemed to get at something strange, and damaged, and deeply personal for Kerouac; his lines ached with a kind of yearning for any kind of meaning that might be available, anywhere, anyhow.   As the curtain fell on Kerouac once more alone, gazing up at the stars, I felt I had, at least for that scene, had the chance to meet the Beats.

No comments:

Post a Comment