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Flash 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).

Williams's portrayal 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 type mutterings.

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 backwards.

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, 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.

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