Arid and lusterless performances by actors portraying exotic and colorful people make Act 1 of Jack Kerouac's only play, Beat Generation, at Subterranean Nightclub a disappointing experience.
To our dismay, Kerouac's 1957 fusion of eastern and western philosophies into an idiosyncratic, but at times effective, critique of '50s-era philistinism goes whizzing by in an antiseptic blur. None of the spicy, imagistic details of Beat poetry or social thought are given the least breath of life in THEATREdART's attempt, described by director Jonathan Andujar as an effort "to create a connection between audience and characters by immersing the audience into a moment of life."
Immersion is one thing, and welcome at a time when language and poetry are digitally and cynically reduced to nonexistence via cell phone, laptop, and cable network. But drowning is another. With no opportunities to come up for air from Kerouac's zesty stream of rage, irony and accusation, moments are swamped in a sea of logorrhea. TdA actors do not "use the words," as the great acting teacher Uta Hagen urges, so much as disgorge them in a race, it seems, to get the thing over with.
About midway through the second act, however, Beat Generation begins a slow but intriguing metamorphosis into a play that both views coldly and laments the era and its rascally, guiding personalities. Milo (Micah Speirs), Buck (Brian Mann) and Manuel (Johnny Radabaugh) act as stand-ins for Neal Cassady, Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who alloyed their search for karmic transcendence with a steely oppositional resistance perhaps better observed in Ginsberg's 1956 "Howl."
Milo is Kerouac's philosophical mouthpiece and Beat prototype, a railroad worker seeking a way out of the suffocating conformities of his time, but not above gambling huge sums at the Jamaica, Queens, racetrack to do so. His idea of enlightenment comes in equal portions of Buddhism and cash; he gives double meaning to the "Beat" appellation, which seems just as Kerouac would have it.
Milo justifies his racing addiction by claiming a foolproof discipleship to "Old Charley," a deceased betting mentor with a system for winning Milo can't seem to stick to, and a wild-eyed dream to utopianize America with those same winnings that Charley sanctions from above.
This constitutes the dramatic center of Beat Generation, and it's not at all lacking despite Andujar's contention in a program note that the play is wanting of "rising action, climax, and structure." Moreover, the Subterranean once again proves itself as a serviceable performance venue. And Radabaugh as Manuel, in his stage debut, far surpasses his scene partners with a polished, energetic performance of exceptional clarity. By the end of Act 2, things are looking up.
No doubt poets Andrew Ziegler and Susan Peiffer have something to do with this, too. Between acts and set changes we're treated by the two to small feasts of original poetry and performance — demonstrations of the humor, psychic damage and confessional zeal of the Beats. Ziegler, with an alarming resemblance to Gregory Corso, is especially riveting.
Act 3 brings the audience face-to-face with the asphyxiating atmosphere of '50s standardization, of a time when "the elevation of the mundane," in the words of historian Christopher Lasch, predominated. At a party, a barefooted, Beat-style priest of minor celebrity (Michael Lee) fends off attacks from boozed, well-heeled antagonists, and departs, but not before leaving a vivid reminder of the "holiness" of everything.
Now TdA and its artists rise to the occasion, and Kerouac is at his authorial best as Buck wanders into the night to sleep under the stars and think over the whole episodic adventure. We, in the audience, go home and do the same.