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Straight From the Fridge 

This 25-year-old play about Beats sticks too close to biography to be cool

Wednesday, May 28 2003
It seems to be an unannounced project of the Marin Theatre Company this year to explore the origins of 20th-century cool. A Tennessee Williams play called Fugitive Kind premiered under Lee Sankowich's direction in January featuring an innocent, middle-class girl during the Depression falling for an edgy thug who knocks off banks because his faith in American society -- especially capitalism -- has gone to hell. The brooding criminal's mistrust of the status quo foreshadowed the poses Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Jack Kerouac would strike a couple of decades on, seducing whole generations of middle-class kids.

Now Sankowich is reviving a play called Visions of Kerouac by Martin Duberman, and the program even includes a guide to 1950s cool, excerpted from something called The Hip Manual. "A hipster's "cool,'" it reads, a bit squarely, "is often spoken of as a possession -- perhaps a hipster's most cherished possession. One's "cool' enables one to face life as it is and to accept graciously what it has to offer. ... It should be pointed out, however, that "cool,' when used in the Hip sense, does NOT mean withdrawn, cold, and non-reacting. "Cool' refers to an attitude which might best be described as poised and self-possessed."

The man who embodied these qualities for Kerouac was Neal Cassady, the benny-driven wanderer memorialized in On the Road as Dean Moriarty and in the more experimental novel Visions of Cody as, well, Cody. Duberman's play puts Kerouac and Cassady onstage with their more prominent Beat friends -- William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder -- and shows us the arc of Kerouac's life, from the novelist's days in the '40s as an unpublished former high school jock to his last phase as a drunken boor, slowly dying at home in Lowell, Mass.

Kerouac and Cassady are apprentice and master in the art of exuberance, rather like the narrator of Zorba the Greek and Zorba himself. Kerouac wrote hymns to holy madness and wild American liveliness, so Cassady comes onstage in the play's first scene spouting Westernisms that seem wildly out of place in Ginsberg's cold-water New York flat. "So long's I can get this lil' ol' gal right here" -- he means his sweet Beat-chick, Mary Lou -- "sumpin' to eat, y'hear me son? I'm hungry, let's eat right now!" and so on.

We're supposed to think it's cool, but it's not.

The only excuse for this corniness is that the lines come from On the Road, where they don't seem quite as embarrassing. But Visions of Kerouac is loaded with such twice-borrowed material, and the effect is cheesy and forced. Duberman has written his play with a superficial sense of character, giving Ginsberg and Burroughs and Cassady lines they really did say or write, hoping against hope that the proper words can call up the souls of the dead. It doesn't work. All the actors, with the exceptions of Liam Vincent as Ginsberg and Michael Janes as Kerouac, self-consciously act. They pose and explain their way through the script, because there's no other way to do it.

Vincent works best as a young Ginsberg; he achieves a satirical distance from his character by pushing a neurotic-Jewish-kid shtick. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses, plaid shirts, and a fake nose, he whines at everyone until Burroughs mutters, "Shut up, Allen. So much need to be noticed." (Alan Parsons as Burroughs gets all the good lines, but he tries too hard to be aristocratic.) Rod Gnapp's Cassady has a forced hick liveliness, and the women -- especially poor Zehra Berkman as Mary Lou -- have almost no honest, human lines to work with. These Beats come off as phonier than the Beats could be themselves; even Ginsberg stoops to self-parody in the first scene after someone tells Cassady to calm down. "How can we calm down," he whines, "when we're inventing a brand-new way?"

Janes steadily improves over the play's 2 1/2 hours, partly because Duberman's writing grows more and more internal. The drunk, declining Kerouac becomes an honest, suffering character. He bickers with his mom in Lowell. He deals with his new cultural-icon status just after On the Road by showing up wasted for a debate with William F. Buckley Jr. He argues with Cassady in a sexually charged scene in a suburban living room. The play ends powerfully, because the final scene is not historical at all, but surreal and terrifying. At the very end, when Duberman no longer has to give us pure biography, he can write a fine tortured speech and free Janes to act with emotion and flair.

It seems Visions was a hit 25 years ago in L.A.; Sankowich directed it then, too. Duberman has revised the script in the meantime, but he's still too worried about keeping his facts straight -- and showing off those facts, perhaps to the living guardians of the Beat legacy. The result is not so much cool as deeply refrigerated.


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