Aug '02 [Home]

Other Arts: Theatre

One More For The Road:  Concerning "Last Call,"
Tom O'Neil's Jack Kerouac
by George Wallace
. . How would you like your Kerouac? Answering that question may help answer which of three plays—running concurrently—you might have preferred from this season's crop of theatrical explorations into the life and times of the great Jack Kerouac.

Seems like a lot, doesn't it—three separate productions running simultaneously in New York City, each of them taking as their starting point the life of the man who wrote On The Road and other key works in the œuvre of American Beat Literature? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Kerouac has inspired a couple of generations so far since he flashed across the American horizon, and there's no sign that his ability to continue to inspire young people—or older people wistful for their younger days—is likely to diminish. Whether it's a lot or a little, if this season's run of Off Broadway Manhattan theater productions is any indication, there's no such thing as a last call just yet for Kerouac.

The occasion of this article is Tom O'Neil's "Last Call," a dramatic staging of the last night—and enduring inner turmoil—of author Jack Kerouac. The show ran for three months, from mid-April to mid-July, 2002, at the 13th Street Repertory Company's compact theater.

A play which acknowledges its origins in a work by Patrick Fenton by the same name—based on a newspaper article Fenton wrote about Kerouac's last night in the village of Northport, Long Island and later turned into a play on the same subject—in his "Last Call," O'Neil has shifted the action to Jack's last day on earth, and created a fundamentally new work. As ambitiously directed by Stanley Harrison, the result is a vehicle for some high theatrics. All in all, "Last Call" is a highly subjective take—and one which has some bright spots and a few disturbing ones as well—on the life and work of Kerouac and his 50's-era friends.

By way of contrast, two other shows should be mentioned which ran concurrent with the 13th Street Repertory Company's production, each with a quite different take on the Kerouac's life and work:  Joyce Johnson's "Door Wide Open," which had a several-night viewing at St. Marks Church; and Frank Kuzler's "AP Book V," which had its one-night Manhattan debut at the Epiphany Theater on Christopher Street. So first, a word about these.

Sopranos Actor Ventimiglia and Amram Drummer Twigg Add Appeal

Johnson's "Door Wide Open" had the distinct advantage of drawing from the author's close personal relationship with Kerouac, not to mention a subsequent career built at least to some extent on expounding on that relationship. Based upon Door Wide Open:  A Beat Love Affair In Letters, 1957-58, the play tells the story of Johnson's tumultuous relationship with Kerouac, through the reading of their letters to each other. [Viking, Excerpt] "Door Wide Open" has the added advantage of superb acting—lead John Ventimiglia (best known for his work in television's The Sopranos) is well known to have Kerouac down to the beat. (The uncanny resemblance was noted by Carolyn Cassady herself when Ventimiglia read from Big Sur in Northport last year.) Ventimiglia's fine work was supplemented by the work of Adira Amram, completely endearing as the younger Joyce.

Frank Kuzler's play has grown considerably, from a dry and rather abstract three-man monologue piece read a year ago, to something much more theatrical. The addition of well drawn and acted realizations of Kerouac's wives and mother—all played by Jen Larkin—has helped. And an underpinning of music created by drummer and David Amram regular Kevin Twigg has made a big difference. In all, the dramatic element is increasingly a positive factor in a production that Kuzler—a newcomer to the Kerouac interpretive scene—acknowledges still needs further elaboration ("I'm working in more elements. More music, film and video.") before its restaging this Fall.

"Last Call's" High Hopes:  Principals Matched to Good Talent

That "Last Call" is the most ambitiously staged and directed of all the productions is both a plus and a minus for the piece. The repertory company has brought a lot of talent and professionalism to bear on the three-month show, and expectations are correspondingly high. Unfortunately, for all that is successful in "Last Call," there is also much to be unhappy with.

The premise of the play is simple—Kerouac is in his family home in St. Petersburg, Florida on his last night on earth, Oct 21, 1969, and visions of his past come back in waves of both exhilaration and doom ("representing the true dichotomy of his own character," notes O'Neil). Though his mother Mamere and third wife Stella are nowhere to be found, Kerouac is not alone. In his imagination, he brings together in succession some of the important characters from his past, as well as two "writers" who seem to be preparing a biography of the famous author.

The show is headlined by John Jordan, a talented actor who is clearly able to draw on his working class roots—born a coal miner's grandson—in developing the lead role of Kerouac. There's no false attempt here by the actor to duplicate the look or sound of Kerouac. Instead, Jordan's Kerouac is a substantial figure autonomous unto himself, apart from a strictly factual depiction. From the very first passages of the play, Jordan helps us to see how utterly Kerouac is bemused both by his talent and his torment, and throughout Jordan tempers his performance to the commingling of these twinned strains. Allen Ginsberg is played with humor and intelligence by Gavin Smith. This is the urban intellectual Ginsberg, complete with narrow tie, white shirt and straight-legged black pants. Without camping it up too heavily or offering too much gay shtick, Smith manages to show the duality of Ginsberg's intellectual passion and homosexual predilections. Kyle Pierson, as Neal Cassady, the charismatic street-hustler, is also fundamentally successful, managing to find a glittering hardness and edge to the self-centered, ingratiating friend and road companion of Kerouac.

Arresting Moments Alternate with Inaccuracies and Distractions

Among the most compelling sequences of the play is the choreographic dream dance created by Lara Hayes-Giles, in which Kerouac and his first lover, "Red," (performed by Deirdre Schwiersow) re-enact their courtship dance in a stylized quasi-kabuki manner. The motion-to-tableau effect of their movement is fraught with sexual tension and moment, as Jordan and Schwiersow recount their first meeting from many years past. This choreographed piece serves as an enormously affecting coda to one scene in particular. And in fact, the endings to several of the scenes are the most effective dramatic moments in the play. At one point, Jordan builds up a truly climactic depiction of his character's inner turmoil while reciting the Hail Mary prayer. An arresting and touching moment occurs at the end of another scene when Ginsberg reaches out and holds a troubled Kerouac's hand in a moment of true human tenderness.

The entire affair ends with a classic Renaissance tableau of Jack lying dead in the arms of Carolyn Cassady (played by Meredith Faltin), entirely resonant in line and flow to the famous Michaelangelo pietà. One wonders whether the director has seen the Stations of the Cross in Lowell, which so profoundly affected Kerouac's psyche. Unfortunately, the psychic authenticity of these moments is separated by too many passages which leave the informed viewer asking more questions than following along.

Putting aside for the moment that both Cassadys are costumed wrong—Neal in a 90's-era sleeveless tanktop shirt and the perennially elegant Carolyn shoeless, in a Granny dress, with her hair braided like a 60's flower child—one wonders why Kerouac conjures Ginsberg and Cassady at all, when so many of the most profound psychological references in the dialogue touch upon his childhood experiences with his father, mother, brother Gerard and childhood friend Sebastian Sampas. Why don't these figures come back to Jack on his last day? Perhaps the playwright has obeyed the dictum of one of the characters in his play, Allen Ginsberg, whose overt orientation to "selling" a good story over writing "the truth" is repeated several times over the course of the action.

The author has found some nice contradictory details in the Kerouac story to work out:  Jack's growing political conservatism amongst his more radical peers, his stolid attractiveness and shyness, for example. But other moments seem out of step with the facts as most Kerouac followers have come to know them. Where is Jack's Buddhism? Why has the playwright glibly dismissed the possibility that Neal and Allen might have had a sexual relationship? Is it likely that in a heated debate Cassady would have smacked Ginsberg to the ground? And why has the playwright chosen to include rather gratuitous and unfounded expressions of Jack's love for New York City when the historical record indicates he had decidedly mixed feelings about the place?

Significant staging problems impede the dramatic intensity of the play. There are virtually no exits and entrances. As Jack confronts one ghost, the others are left on stage with very little to do and no faded lighting to hide behind. The biographers busy themselves with note-taking and Ginsberg/Cassady friends attend these lengthy sections without appearing too frozen-faced, but only Schwiersow, riveting in vampish self-preoccupation, manages to act her way through the bad staging situation.

It is apparent that O'Neil and Harrison were aware of the problem, and in fact they succeed in overcoming this difficulty on occasion by having ensembles of actors provide narrative counterpoint. But in the main, it was too hard not to feel sorry for the sideliners.

(George Wallace, a poet, journalist, and Kerouac authority, conceived and organized last year's four-city marathon reading of Big Sur. He edits the Long Island Quarterly and