Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Tom McGrath, TC McG Photography.
There is still something utterly compelling about the Beat Poets of the middle of the 20th Century and the iconic cross country journey “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac. The playwright Steven Dietz recognizes it in his play Mad Beat Hip and Gone, an 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 the smoke from marijuana.
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). The poet, focusing on new thoughts for his omnipresent notebook, rolls into and over a moment when Danny (Pat King) is trying to flirt with a cute bartender, angering both young men before he heads off, unaware or not caring that he has broken the bro code, into the night.
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 while Rich is fascinated by the world of finance, Danny is unsure where he wants to go in his life. Having grown up without a father, he is searching for some kind of meaning. And when he discovers that his father, whom he has long thought dead, might be alive after all, he and Rich take off from Kimball on 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 a hipster girl who is traveling with the poet. Honey (Hilary Williams) is the sort of young woman who carries around her favorite jazz album in her cloth purse because “bop is the future” and she needs to have the future with her as she travels. She is totally enmeshed in a culture that Rich and Danny know nothing about, but they appeal to her anyway because she finds them funny. When she ends up leaving with Kerouac, Rich vows to follow them west and try to win her, and Danny decides to go with him.
Unbeknownst to both of them, Danny’s father Albert (Ted Hoerl in a generally understated, folksy performance) not only is alive but has actually crossed paths with Honey. Albert left home a long time ago and got “tangled up in roads” and eventually lost himself. Now a gas station attendant who refers to himself as a “ghost,” he is fond of passing out folk wisdom like “In your house, a window is your fate. In your car, a window is your opportunity.” or “The future is a suitcase that someone else packs for you. And you never know when it might show up.” When he sees the young woman who is assiduously following a map left to her by a mother who had walked out and ultimately killed herself, his advice is to ditch the map. “People,” he says. “Get yourself tangled up in people. You don’t need a map for that.”
Danny’s mother (Elaine Carlson), a maid at a roadside motel, is the kind of 40-something woman whom 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.” Carlson has a great time with the role, layering a mischievous desire to prove she’s still alive and attractive with an inner anger at Albert for leaving that she has never fully resolved, despite the fact that she understands his post-WWI shellshock. Williams, too, is a joy: all youthful innocence seeking “ecstasy” with the help of pot and bennies. She and King share an exuberant moment of pure Beat poetry onstage as their characters drive west separately under the influence of the “great mad concrete snakes” of roadways “seeking the Next, the Other, the Lowdown, the Lost.”
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 together – suspended 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 play eschews showing us a roadmap to life and, like the Beats, just sits back, watches it happen, and enjoys the journey.
Mad Beat Hip and Gone is a Prometheus Theatre Ensemble production now playing at the Edge off Broadway, 1133 W Catalpa, Chicago, through June 2. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.