Playwright: Steven Dietz
At: The Edge Off Broadway, 1133 W. Catalpa Ave. Tickets: PrometheanTheatre.org. Runs through: June 2
There is still something utterly compelling about the Beat Poets of the middle of the 20th century and the iconic cross-country book On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. Playwright Steven Dietz recognizes this in his play Mad Beat Hip and Gonean homage to the Beats and their generation of "seekers," as he calls them in the play: young people frustrated by the issues of the older generation who left home to search for truth, dharma, nirvana and Ecstasy amid the alcohol and marijuana smoke.
Dietz's play, which blends the realistic dialogue he is known for and some powerful Beat-influenced poetry, follows two utterly average young men from Kimball, Nebraska ( "Maybe we are not the people who people remember," one says ) who accidentally cross paths with Kerouac ( whom we never meet ). Danny and his friend Rich ( Michael Vizzi, eternally hopeful and optimistic ) have recently graduated from high school and recognize that the whole world is open to them, but they are unsure what to do with their lives. When Danny discovers that his father, whom he has long thought dead, might be alive after all, he and Rich take off from Kimball in a quixotic attempt to find the old man. In Denver, they cross paths with Kerouac again, and this time they both fall insanely in love with Honey ( Hilary Williams ), a hipster girl who is traveling with the poet.
Unbeknownst to them, Danny's father Albert ( Ted Hoerl in a generally understated, down-to-earth performance ) is in fact still alive, working as a gas station attendant and thinking of himself as a "ghost" while dispensing folk wisdom to passersby. Playing Danny's mother, Elaine Carlson is a kick as the kind of 40-something woman we'd call a "cougar" today as she openly flirts with Rich, whom she has known all of his life, now that he is "a man." Williams, too, is a joy: all youthful innocence seeking "ecstasy" with the help of pot and bennies.
Jess Hutchinson directs with a minimalist approach and a sensitive touch, getting excellent performances from her whole cast, but none finer than King, who captures the very complicated journey of Danny from a fatherless childhood defined by a lie to an equally fatherless manhood defined by the wanderlust and poetry and "seeking" that were the Beats' hallmarks. Hutchinson gives King room in his powerful and poetic soliloquies to show off his character's vulnerabilities as well as his joys, and King is just outstanding.
Mad Beat Hip and Gone is a play about seeking a future that is always in motion, one that we cannot comprehend until we live it. Some choose safe routes; some choose roads that ultimately might entangle them. Some settle; some continue to seek. Either way, as Danny says, "there is only time and what it makes of us." And time is a key element of this play, both in the non-linear way in which we witness it and in the Beat philosophy that, as Honey puts it, "there's your life, all the parts of your life, past-present-future, dangling there where you can see them all at once, all togethersuspended in the music of Time." Dietz has his prose and poetry both wind back to us in echoes as the play goes on, manifesting this concept. "It's funny how we go," Danny says, repeating an earlier line by Albert, and Dietz in this playeschewing showing us a roadmap to lifejust sits back like the Beats, watches it happen and enjoys the journey.