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
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