Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The bebop’s already boppin’ as patrons enter the funky ’50s nightspot that designer Giorgos Tsappas has imagined through a postmodern haze for Kerouac: kicks, joy, darkness at Studio Secondstage. Tables surround a linoleum-tiled dance floor, a bar is tucked into a corner at the right, and at the far end of the intimate room, Buck Brown sits at an upright piano, setting tempos for a quartet that need make no apologies for arriving on the hep-cat scene a half-century late. Cigarette smoke hangs heavily in the air. Sophistication, too. Technically, the joint’s a coffeehouse, but the bartender is mostly pouring rye.
It’s 1955 or thereabouts, and though the name of the establishment isn’t specified, it might as well be the San Remo, that trendily anti-establishment hangout where Jack Kerouac and his buddies stimulated their nerve endings with Benzedrine and booze for a few heady years and, as a sort of literary afterthought, gave birth to the Beat. The evening will soon be leaping around in time, from the mid-1940s to Oct. 21, 1969, the day Kerouac left the world behind to do some celestial poetry-slamming on his own, but at this early moment, we’re immersed in a ’50s aesthetic. The fabrics chosen by Edu. Bernardino for his period-perfect costumes look decidedly flammable, lipstick is purest crimson, jitterbuggers bounce with a carefree air, and vocalists blend their voices in creamy harmonies: “We, the cats, will hep ya/to reap this righteous riff, bop, bop.”
On a table surrounded by a tufted, black vinyl banquette sits a typewriter, and as this first song ends, an affably smiling Kerouac (Jeff Johnson) appears beside it, bathed in what, even for folks who weren’t born in his lifetime, will seem an amber glow of nostalgia. His hair is neatly combed, with a touch of Brylcreem to keep it in place. His white, button-down shirt is open at the collar. His khaki slacks are pressed. As rebels go, he’s a thoroughgoing neatnik.
The “bratitudes/platitudes” he reads from his journal when he steps up to the microphone are as tidy as his appearance, carefully crafted quips at the expense of his Lowell, Mass., upbringing and of America’s postwar cookie-cutter culture. There’s acid in his commentary, but also a reluctant acceptance that words aren’t likely to change so popular a status quo. As he will later tell such drug-addled compatriots as Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, the writing is everything to him and, being everything, offers its own sort of high.
Johnson’s Kerouac leans into the mike as he reads, tapping his toe, delivering his blank-verse soliloquies to a snare drum and bass accompaniment as if they were lyrics in some heartfelt ballad. Slouching, insouciant, movie-star handsome, and breathtakingly relaxed, he exudes erotic ambivalence from every pore. He’s masculine but somehow soft, with a liquor-soaked manner that is sexy but nonthreatening. It’s easy to see why hipsters of all genders and persuasions would find this guy captivating. His tone is inclusive, his manner assured, his appeal passively ambisexual.
When he’s finished with a sharply articulated riff that takes him from witty cultural generalities to the painfully specific memory of his brother (“my Saint Girard, dead at nine”), he takes a langorous puff on his cigarette, then strides back to the banquette, stepping up onto it and perching at the typewriter, knees bent, whiskey glass at the ready. If you’ve ever imagined what the author of On the Road looked like in the throes of creation, this is your imagining made flesh.
Shortly, this quintessential Beat poet is joined by Cassady (a hyperkinetic Jonathan Bailey), the brash best buddy who was the inspiration for Road’s hero. And then by a dapper, derby-wearing Burroughs (snarled to a fare-thee-well by Joe Wildermuth) and a nebbishy, questing Ginsberg (brought to earnest life by Tony Gudell). More mismatched soul mates would be hard to conjure for Johnson’s laid-back Kerouac. Bailey’s goofy, hetero-sex-obsessed good-time boy and Gudell’s hesitant gay pioneer, “Ever read Rimbaud?” Ginsberg asks shyly on first encountering the evening’s dashing leading man, qualify as near opposites both for each other and for the man they both love in their different fashions. And with Wildermuth channeling Burroughs’ otherworldly growl for his classic “Thanksgiving Day” rant (“…thanks for Kill-a-Queer-for-Christ stickers…”) and for various Naked Lunch excerpts (“I once knew an Arab boy who could play the flute with his ass”), that famous misanthrope is pretty much in a class by himself.
Equally vivid, if similarly mismatched, are the various women in their lives, among them, Jen DeMayo as Joan, the wife a dissipated Burroughs accidentally shot through the head while playing a game of William Tell, and voluptuous Janet Pryce as Carolyn, the self-possessed siren who managed for a time to balance her marriage to Cassady and an affair with Kerouac. They and a host of other characters are thrown together in a series of scenes that don’t come to much individually, but that could, I suppose, be said to constitute a dramatic equivalent of the eponymous hero’s sketchy, impressionistic writing, or of the jazzy, shiddledy-dee-boy-boy riffs emanating from the house band.
That said, the creators of Kerouac don’t appear to have much more on their minds than recreating the ambiance of the period for a couple of hours, letting us watch the characters fend off their various demons. If there’s a through-line to the proceedings, it’s strictly chronological. The leading man ponders, drinks, writes, and slowly goes to pieces, while those around him wonder if there’s something they might have done to save him from himself.
Dramatic this scenario isn’t, but it manages to be pretty damn riveting all the same, punctuated by music and goosed into life by Keith Alan Baker’s environmental staging whenever the characters threaten to sink too deeply into self-absorption. Baker is credited with conceiving the show as well as directing it, and while it’s not an immaculate conception, it is a smart, surprising, effective, and audience-friendly one.
The show’s odd genesis is suggested by the program’s credits, which describe it as “based, in part, on the book of the new musical Kerouac by Reena Heenan.” The director opted to jettison that show’s music and lyrics, but kept his new, streamlined Kerouac a musical of sorts by incorporating nine pop songs and a reprise or two, as well as perhaps an hour of underscoring by music director Brown. The scoring is terrific, lending rhythm and heft to literary recitations and dramatic scenes alike. The songs, though, are all ’50s jazz standards (“Route 66,” “Body and Soul,” and “Lush Life” among them) with no real relationship to the characters, so they tend to be more decorative and ambiance-enhancing than functional. Sometimes they seem to comment obliquely on the action; more often, they just offer brief respites from it, which means the actors, Johnson especially, are required to settle back in their banquettes and listen to the vocal quartet along with the theater audience.
To his credit, Johnson is persuasive and credible, whether he’s the center of attention or a mere witness to events. The actor is a real find, and if the evening that surrounds him is something less than spellbinding, it’s still a vivid, jazzy, literate night on the town.