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Bohemian Grave 

Jack Kerouac and the death of cool

Thursday, Jan 6 2005
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The siren call of bohemia has haunted the Western ear ever since Carmen paused on her way back to the cigarette factory and sang, "Love is a child of Gypsies, he’s never, never known the law." From absinthe parlors to Kool-Aid acid tests, from the hip to the cool to the phat, underground men and subterranean women have roiled the American imagination. Rebellious and reactionary, cynical and nostalgic, brutal and infantile, bohemians have amused and terrified the orderly world of the squares and sellouts they implicitly mock. Many consider Beat author Jack Kerouac the granddaddy-o of today’s counterculture, but the classical bohemia his name conjures (solitary communities of nonconformists and pagan sensualists) has vanished, thanks largely to Kerouac himself — not because he sold out but because he was eaten alive by fame. His novel On the Road made outlaw individualism sexy — and a marketable commodity that everyone wanted to purchase.

Jon Lipsky’s 1994 play, Maggie’s Riff, running at Knightsbridge Theater, looks at the very young Kerouac — the "Memory Babe" of Lowell, Massachusetts — just before he enrolled at Columbia and hooked up with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and well before the public spotlight pushed him toward alcoholism and patriotic rage. The story, adapted from Kerouac’s early novel Maggie Cassidy, begins with Kerouac (Roy Samuelson) slouching away from his typewriter to speak before a mike stand in some purgatorial nightclub. Now a middle-aged man, he speaks softly about the curse of renown, while upstage a Dr. Sax (Khalif Bobatoon) punctuates and punctures the novelist’s litany of regrets with jagged reed bursts. (To the ear, the moment recalls the readings Kerouac recorded in the late 1950s with tenor saxmen Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.)

The home movie of Kerouac’s life then fades back to 1939, where we find high school track star Jack mooning over a tough-girl sweetheart, Maggie Cassidy (Wendy Obstler), while his extroverted buddy, Mouse (Jamil Chokachi), a Greek prankster among French Canadians, leads him to bars, cars and parties around the depressed mill town. We can stop the projector right here, at least for a while, to count the ways the childish Mouse resembles that other "Cassidy" and to guess how Mouse, while opening the doors of wild adolescence to this shy Catholic boy, will ultimately be his biggest obstacle to maturity.

True enough, we’re soon finding out how much closer Jack feels to Mouse than to Mary, foreshadowing both Kerouac’s crippling shyness with women and the incestuous guy-world Kerouac preferred — the fictional Maggie’s family name, after all, comes from his real-life friend and hero, Neal Cassady. (Paging Dr. Freud.) Much of the play is taken up with autobiographical incidents: Kerouac’s chance encounter with a dead "watermelon man" on a bridge, his various attempts at commitment with Maggie and his traumatic break with Lowell, the kind of small town that boys struggle to escape as soon as they can walk.

Kerouac eventually leaves Maggie, Mouse and Lowell on a football scholarship to finish high school in New York before entering Columbia University. Still, he does so kicking and screaming — until the very end we feel that had Kerouac missed maybe just one taxi or train, he would have gladly returned home, never to leave its claustrophobic embrace.

That would have deprived American literature of its poet of the open road, but who’s to say this wouldn’t have been the best choice for Kerouac? He ended his life estranged from his old literary friends (who were too queer and too much into pot for his liking) and seething with anti-Semitic and pro–Vietnam War tirades. The ultimate mama’s boy, Kerouac spent the end living with his mother, drunkenly hitting on biographer Ann Charters as Mom prepared lunch in the next room.

Today Kerouac, like the Beat Generation itself, has undergone several waves of analysis: Time magazine dismissal, hippie condescension, romantic revival and feminist critique. Clearly the time has come for a compassionate re-evaluation of the man, but this play falls too heavily into the romantic revivalism of the 1990s to do more than sigh at its hero’s presence.

Lipsky’s drama shows a playwright invested in his subject but out of touch with his audience — Maggie’s Riff is maddeningly elusive as a character study or even as a teen potboiler. In his attempt to break down and rework Maggie Cassidy, a traditionally structured novel, in the improvisational, riffing style for which Kerouac would later be known, Lipsky simply tosses in the air some familiar coming-of-age motifs and hopes they’ll swing. They don’t. Nor does Lipsky venture to tread on speculation: In one scene, Jack and Mouse make a bit of mouth music together, but there’s no insinuation as to just how deep were Mouse’s Hellenic roots, or if this fleeting kiss partly held Kerouac back from Maggie. Without some specifics, we have only our guesses — or, in Lipsky’s case, a play that was originally staged as a one-act and hasn’t stretched well into a full-length evening.

To energize this piece, perhaps the playwright should have looked not just homeward to Kerouac’s Lowell novel but also to more of Kerouac’s later life. His stage Kerouac only alludes to an embarrassing appearance on The Steven Allen Show, in which a still-boyish Kerouac boozily free-associated while Allen tickled the ivories. It wouldn’t have been the worst idea in the world to have opened Maggie’s Riff with this moment and then take the audience back in time — at least we’d get to see Kerouac confront his present more forcefully, even if many regard his Allen appearance not as an embarrassment but as a golden moment in the history of cool. Only a few years later, in 1968, he would make a truly disastrous visit to Firing Line, much to the snide amusement of host William F. Buckley Jr. Then a bloated buffoon, Kerouac was all but incoherent and, while only 46, looked as though he measured his life in dog years. He died 14 months after the broadcast.

Director Andre Carriere doesn’t do much to enliven things, either, and allows Bobatoon’s sax and vocal riffs to occasionally drown out Samuelson’s admittedly low-key delivery. The latter’s performance ends up exsanguinating an already anemic and lethargic text. The problem isn’t that the young actor isn’t the right age to play the middle-aged Kerouac seen at the show’s top — it’s that he can’t play a broken middle-aged man when he needs to and is too tentative a presence onstage to be a confused teenager. We get no indications from Samuelson’s line readings or body language of the deeply troubled spirit who would one day reconfigure our notions of what literature and personal freedom are.

Elsewhere, Obstler and Chokachi are audible and emotional enough, which only tends to make Jack more of a cipher. Still, this play is a difficult trick to pull off in the best of circumstances, and Knightsbridge should be applauded for pushing its talents. The promise of Carriere’s production lies in its visual and sound designs. Although it runs on a comparatively spare set (the same stage where A Christmas Carol was performing), Maggie’s Riff benefits from Joseph Stachura’s brick-wall backdrop (the very image of small-town America that always haunted Kerouac) and Lucas Brown’s hellishly lit piano, where Dr. Sax sits on an elevated part of the stage. A psychologically wan story like this needs more juicing up, and Carriere could have used a lot more lighting and music effects.

The ultimate irony that befell Kerouac was that he was forever identified with a 1950s cool-jazz mystique that gave us bongos, berets and turtlenecks, yet his life and writing were forged in the bebop heat of the double-breasted 1940s. To thousands of young suburban Siddharthas, Kerouac became a road prophet, leading them to enlightenment along a highway of kicks stretching from Big Sur to Millbrook Farm. As long as they were on this road, they were bohemians — part of a vast apartness.

Today, in an age when people are what they wear and drive, there are Kerouac conferences, the Annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival and even a Jack Kerouac bobble-head doll. Had he lived, Kerouac could’ve comfortably gotten by on Johnnie Walker endorsements alone. But then, his life would have been the longest death in literature.

MAGGIE’S RIFF | By JON LIPSKY | At KNIGHTSBRIDGE THEATER, 1944 Riverside Drive, L.A. | Through February 4 | (323) 667-0955

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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