Theater Review - Hey, Jack Kerouac

Like using a cell phone to answer the call of the open road, Jack in the Black Box Theatre’s On the Road with Jack reinterprets the hepcat-vagabond spirit of the Beat generation for the early 21st century. The traveling rhapsodies of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road inspires a company-created evening of beat poetry, tongue-in-cheek songs and diverse sketches that make an invigorating trip that hits a few potholes along the way.

Except for the occasional video accompaniments, On the Road with Jack evokes the kind of show you’d find at a 1950s java joint echoing with bongo drums. Ice-cold poet Mr. Boom (Dennis Coburn) unifies the evening by rhyming ecstatically about high-tech speed, snack food and the big bang. A little beatnik homage goes a long way, but Coburn perfectly channels the spirit of a sibilant, finger-snapping Daddy-O.

The rest of the ensemble — Rachel Craw, Shawn Hale, Maia Knispel and Tyler Owens — riff on different notions of freedom and the freeway through an ambitious variety of theater styles. One sketch unfolds like still photographs as a hippie (Coburn) expands the horizons of two conservative road-trippers (Hale and Knispel). In another, a red-nosed Knispel pantomimes a slapstick roadside emergency. A scene at a bus station captures the interior monologues of four bored travelers and the tensions set off by a young hottie (Knispel) and a mentally challenged guy (Owens).

Music, including the backup tunes of the Pai Mei Traveling Band jazz trio, provides not just the smoky atmosphere but some of the biggest laughs. Hale, in waitress drag, belts out Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner. Owens and Knispel, playing two aging hippies, croon a number about roadkill that’s worthy of A Mighty Wind. A coke-snorting trucker (Owens) sings of his obsession with orange hazard barrels.

Despite her engaging stage presence, Craw delivers a pair of monologues (about a toll-booth attendant and an agoraphobic) that feel like overly serious acting exercises. But On the Road with Jack only truly hits the ditch with its tedious photomontage of the company’s own travels. The indulgent slideshow trivializes the show’s cleverness, so once the vacation snaps start rolling, it’s time to hit the road.

On the Road with Jack plays through Oct. 13 at Actor’s Express, 887 W. Marietta St. Mon.-Wed., 8 p.m. $12. 404-432-9847.