For many, Jack Kerouac is familiar through his painstakingly detailed and baldly observational writings, perhaps most likely from his seminal novel On the Road. The same detail or color Kerouac put into his works is seldom present in The Substance of John: AP Book V: Jack Kerouac, Francis Kuzler's new play at Centerstage, but the portrait drawn of Kerouac as an artist and a man is nonetheless frequently alluring.
That's most likely because of Kuzler's affectionate perception of the era, which presents the people and situations surrounding Kerouac as part of the foundation of modern literary history. While to some this time may seem foreign, Kuzler - with the fine, honed assistance of director Cailin Heffernan - composes these characters in such a way that, while familiar, they still feel fresh; certain ideals may change focus, but they never disappear completely.
Kuzler also realizes that it would be difficult to accurately tell Kerouac's story without including information about the friends contemporaries who influenced his life and his work so significantly. Kuzler even goes so far as to allow a number of the most important of them appear onstage - those would be Allen Ginsberg (Ben Masur), William Burroughs (Ian Pfister), Herbert Hunke (Aaron Lisman), and even Kerouac's muse of sorts, Neal Cassidy (Bram Heidinger). It's when the four of them mix and match in various ways, sharing their philosophies and writing in such a way that they define not only Kerouac but the Beat Generation itself, that The Substance of John is at its best. One early scene in particular, in which Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg argue over a number of abstract ideas including form and concept while getting drunk in a New York bar, is a superb example of how to deliver complicated back story.
When the show is focusing on Kerouac's family life, whether with his domineering father (David Arthur Bachrach), his doting mother (Susan Moses), or his three wives, the play becomes conventional almost to a fault, displaying a perhaps accurate Kerouac little of the same theatrical verve informing the rest of the production. The overly long and somewhat plodding second act is concerned mostly with Kerouac drinking himself into oblivion, and only perks up during a sardonic TV appearance he makes while plastered and when he confronts himself - literally - in a St. Petersburg, Florida bar.
It's the only time that Kuzler's conceit of portraying the role of Kerouac with two actors - one at age 47 approaching his death (Stu Richel) and the other (Jason Field) covering the 25 years or so prior - pays off. And it's a great payoff, the conversation between the two depicted as a Beat poetry reading, complete with a live three-piece musical ensemble (they're used sparingly, but effectively, throughout, playing music composed by Kevin Twigg). Otherwise, Richel is left unused and mostly unnecessary, usually sitting far upstage at Katherine McCauley's bar set while Field takes part in almost all the significant action.
And Field is great, capturing the barely suppressed wanderlust that drives Kuzler's Kerouac, and moving between the various aspects of Kerouac's character with an often subtle ease. Masur and Pfister give colorful, well-judged performances, though Heidinger is much less successful at capturing the free spirit who provided inspiration for such works as On the Road or Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Sarah Sutel appears only briefly as Kerouac's third wife, Stella, but gives the play the few heartfelt moments it has.
Kuzler could use a few more of them as the play is often as emotionally vacant as it is exceedingly clever. But despite that - and that the show runs out of steam well before its nearly three hours are over - it's a mostly worthwhile, whirlwind depiction of a unique artistic era that some may want to revisit and others discover for the first time. The Substance of John makes it fairly easy and entertaining to do either.
Boomerang Theatre Company