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Review 2, 2-23: On the Elevator with Jack, Bill, & Steve
ERS Revisits, if not Repairs, Kerouac
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2006 Philip W. Sandstrom
NEW YORK -- It started
with a waltz and ended with a romping tap number.
Elevator Repair Service's
"No Great Society," seen February 9 at PS 122, opened with the character
Jack (Kerouac), played by Susie Sokol, cautiously maneuvering --
with obvious pleasure -- rolling chairs, accompanied by nothing
but what appeared to be a tune playing in his head. Sokol had the
intense and studied movement pattern and facial expressions of someone
preoccupied with, and silently following, her own musical score.
This dizzy bit of a waltz was quite humorous in its obvious confusion.
It led me to ask, Exactly how does one maneuver four rolling chairs
simultaneously with any grace or aplomb? The answer is one doesn't,
but it looks like fun for those in the proper frame of mind. (We
learn in the next scene that Kerouac's frame of mind is in a fog
-- perhaps, it is hinted in the text, the fog of booze, drugs, or
both.) This was a prelude to the recreation of William F. Buckley's
1968 Firing Line interview with Kerouac, Ed Sanders (Scott Shepherd),
and Lewis Yablonsky (Vin Knight).
of Buckley's character was dead on; his mannerisms, delivery, and
sitting angle were a perfect rendition of the original (although
he missed the occasional finger in the mouth). I must confess that
in my youth, I was a devote of PBS and Firing Line. It was a great
way to keep an eye on the important characters and personalities
of the day and learn unique expressions of the English lexicon.
Appropriately, Williams's querying of his panelists and his asides
were delivered with a keener sense of interest than Buckley's own
sometimes muddled, yet intense, style; this change was probably
necessary for this theatrical setting.
The story is about Jack
Kerouac, but Buckley's questions had a way of elucidating answers
from Sanders and Yablonsky. The discussion was engaging and enlightening
in spite of Kerouac's antics and unorthodox behavior. I couldn't
help but want Kerouac to behave himself so I could concentrate on
the questions and answers. Of course it's a show; we were there
to learn more about Kerouac, or at least the ERS take on Kerouac.
Throughout the interview,
Kerouac shifted in his seat, mumbled, and interrupted. At several
moments he even physically tormented Yablonskky by touching, tickling,
and lying at his feet. Kerouac was in his own world; his senses
seemed dulled by either booze or simply brain rot, with occasional
cogent moments and lucidity, which came as a surprise -- as might,
for example, sudden philosophical outbursts from a panhandler.
The interview was separated
into three sessions, with visible breaks during which the panel
sat quietly in dim light waiting to begin anew. Each section contained
versions of the same interview subject: hippie politics and how
the hippies differed from the Beat Generation. At one point, Kerouac,
from a stupor, blurted out "Flat foot floosie with a floy floy,"
from the 1938 song by Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart and Bud Green.
Buckley and the other guests successfully struggled to ignore him.
The third section of the interview touched on the 1968 Democratic
convention, Humphrey, Agnew, and running naked for 10 kilometers
smeared in strawberry jam. Soon the interview disintegrated, with
Kerouac continuing to misbehave, abruptly ending when he accused
Yablonsky of using protest marches to achieve fame.
At this point, the context
was set; we had seen Kerouac one year before his death from alcoholism.
Although he could be inspiring and lucid on a few occasions, his
mind had turned inward and began entertaining itself with street-bum
The scene now changed
into a recreation of a 1958 interview of Kerouac by Steve Allen
(Williams) on his pioneering television program, complete with Allen's
piano. As a kid I was drawn to Allen's interview style and was continually
amazed at how he could interrogate and play piano at the same time.
(In a previous life, I played accordion and couldn't concentrate
when anyone else was in the room, let alone talking to me.) He always
seemed to unerringly match the tone and temperature of the music
to the interview and interviewee. Williams does not disappoint,
as Allen emerges as a superbly disarming interviewer, using the
piano as inquisitor, illuminator, and mood setter. The premise of
this interview was for Kerouac to read his manuscript while Allen
accompanied him, mimicking, or re-creating, a recent commercial
recording in which the two had done just that. Allen is obviously
"beat" savvy and Jack is comfortable reading in his presence.
The interview began
as planned, with Kerouac markedly more lucid than in the later Buckley
interview. He started reading while Allen played, then shushed the
latter, perhaps to silence him, perhaps to get him to temper his
playing. The manuscript that Kerouac read concerns a Bowery family,
and features a character named Milo and a visit from a bishop, who
other characters question about the merits of Buddhism and whether
baseball is holy. Now here's where the ERS play morphed into something
else; I took it as a view inside the mind of Kerouac.
Throughout this long
and continuous stream of consciousness, Allen periodically chimed
in on piano. The pair exchanged chairs; Kerouac slept; Allen left
to get Kerouac a cup of tea; the author awakened, crossed upstage
right, and returned to the set before the action abruptly ceased.
The interview began anew, appearing to start all over. But this
time, Allen and Kerouac talked over each other, the effect like
that of two different conversations heard simultaneously on an airplane.
At this point I lost
the ability to comprehend and just sat back and tried to absorb
the proceedings. During this near psychedelic occurrence, I kept
trying to make sense of things; were we inside Kerouac's brain?
The aural experience bordered on hallucinogenic. It was overwhelming.
The combination of the characters' voices sounded like two soundtracks,
one heard in each ear, one running forward and the other running
This mind trip was finally
interrupted when Shepherd and Knight returned to join Sokol and
Williams for a tap dance number, the entire ensemble singing:
Oh, the flat foot floogie
with a floy, floy,
Flat foot floogie with
a floy, floy,
Flat foot floogie with
a floy, floy,
Floy doy, floy doy,
It was a refreshing
splash of reality to see the four characters singing their hearts
out while wildly tapping and smacking the floor with their feet,
all while seated in rolling office chairs. It cleared my mind.
Nonetheless, we must
be reminded that the story is about Kerouac, the tragedy of Kerouac;
the piece ended on a somber note as the writer, now alone, crossed
upstage right to a small room filled with light, entered the room,
paused, and turned off the light.