The Substance of John, AP Book V: Jack Kerouac

By Francis Kuzler
Directed by Cailin Heffernan
The Boomerang Theatre Company
Center Stage
48 West 21st Street, 4th fl. (212/501-4069)
Equity showcase (closes September 21)
Review by Jenny Sandman

Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road and nearly thirty other books, has always been a hot topic for Off-Off-Broadway theatre; the original literate rebel, Kerouac was the guy who made it cool to be an oversmart, underpaid writer intent only upon road trips, women, and alcohol. He and his friends - among them Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Neal Cassady - split the world of American literature wide open, even as they horrified its scions (Truman Capote's famous quote about Kerouac's writing, "That's not writing, it's typing," comes to mind). Kerouac and company pioneered the form of stream-of-consciousness writing. Now that the triumvirate of Beat literature are dead - Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs - there's been a renewed interest in bringing these men to life on stage.

The Substance of John, AP Book V: Jack Kerouac is more a series of biographical vignettes than it is a play, making periodic stops through Jack's life. As older Jack looks on, young Jack gets kicked out of the Army, begins writing, moves back in with his mother, starts hanging out with Ginsberg and Burroughs, meets Neal Cassady, lives in Mexico for a time, gets married three times, becomes famous, and then becomes a lonely, belligerent alcoholic. Important stops in his life, all, but there's no real attempt to highlight or develop any one particular theme or story line or even character. Even Jack himself feels underdeveloped. There isn't enough of Cassady, Ginsberg or Burroughs, a little too much of his mother, and only a fleeting reference to his road trips.

Strangely, junkie and hustler Herbert Huncke (Aaron Lisman) is the most charming and charismatic part of the show, possibly because he's the only one not overwritten. His appearances, more than any other element, tie the show together and provide some sorely needed comic relief. Lisman was a riot, and Ben Masur nailed Allen Ginsberg. Ian Pfister also made a fine Burroughs. Jason Field was a strong, if mulish, young Kerouac, while Stu Richel was an appropriately sodden older Kerouac. Bram Heidinger was the perfect brash, impetuous Cassady; if only there had been more of him.

The bare, unfinished stage (Katherine McCauley) appropriately had only a bar for decoration. The set changes moved swiftly, unencumbered by a lot of furniture, and the jazz soundtrack was fitting. It was a multimedia production, with images and scene titles projected behind the bar, but the play would have worked just as well without the video elements and moved a lot faster without them. Cailin Heffernan's direction showed a thorough knowledge of the characters and their histories and made good use of the small space.

The pacing was a problem - it moved slowly, and any play that hopes to be an accurate depiction of Kerouac's life should attempt to capture the headlong breathlessness of that life. This is the man, after all, who famously spent three weeks writing On the Road on a continuous scroll of paper, hopped up on Benzedrine, not stopping to eat or sleep, who (more than once) drove cross-country in less than three days. Possibly the pacing suffered because the scenes are too long; while the playwright shows thorough appreciation for the characters, and clearly has done the necessary research, the dialogue is overwrought and there's no unifying principle. There are some fairly obscure references that aren't explained. It's not an integrated work as a whole. As a result, the camaraderie between the main characters feels forced, though the actors show the proper enthusiasm. The writing is deft and touching - the script as a whole just needs a fair amount of cutting.

Still, true Kerouac fans won't mind the extraneous material, and the cast was really superb. It's the best of the Kerouac bio-plays thus far.

Also with David Arthur Bachrach, Jennifer Larkin, Heather Paradise, Susan Moses, Ronald Cohen, and Sarah Sutel.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman