In Mexico City Blues, “Chorus 113,” Jack Kerouac wrote, “Got up and dressed up and went out & got laid. Then died and got buried in a coffin in the grave.” Amid this hectic itinerary, Kerouac also granted numerous interviews. In No Great Society, the collaborative ensemble Elevator Repair Service seizes on two of Kerouac’s televised talks: a bilious and bibulous appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in 1968 and a piano-accompanied lark on the Steve Allen Plymouth Show. In both re-creations, Susie Sokol—attired in a girlish plaid skirt and fitted blazer—plays Kerouac.
The spotlight on Kerouac continues an enduring ERS interest in American writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, the James brothers—William and Henry, not Jesse and Frank) and comedians (Andy Kaufman, the Marx Brothers). Kerouac isn’t known as a comic, but on the Buckley show, even draped in an inebriated haze, he betrays a spiny, unpredictable wit. When the fatuous artist-activist Ed Sanders muses that he may indulge in a political action in which he would “run naked through the streets smeared in strawberry preserves,” Kerouac deadpans, “Maybe I could lick you.” Later, he advises Buckley that the Vietnam conflict is a plot perpetrated by the North and South Vietnamese to get more jeeps into the country. “They’re not very good plotters,” Buckley objects. “But they get a lot of jeeps,” answers Kerouac.
Sokol, a sharp-featured, matchstick-legged gamine, bears little resemblance to the Beat icon, nor does she attempt it. Rather, with the aid of choreographer Katherine Profeta and director John Collins, she uses Kerouac’s mumbles and interjections to create a verbal-physical score of tics, twitches, starts, and gulps. It’s a remarkable effort—graceful in its glamorousness, purposefully awkward in the best ERS tradition—but never quite lifts the show out of the enforced flatness of the interview format. The Buckley section is enlivened by Vin Knight’s portrayal of sociologist Lewis Yablonsky and Scott Shepherd’s fright-wigged take on Sanders. Seersucker-clad Ben Williams makes an extraordinary Buckley—leaning back in his chair at precarious angles and speaking with a drawl so forceful it threatens to choke him. His bespectacled Allen is nearly as engaging.
Collins and his designers unsettle the action with unexpected light cues and an anxious soundscape. But it’s only in the final moments, when the company breaks wide the chat-show setup and performs a jerking, stomping, rapturous, mostly seated dance to the Slim Gaillard tune “Flat Foot Floogie” that No Great Society really surprises and delights. ERS might take Gaillard’s words to heart—as they’ve often done in the past: “Whenever your cares are chronic,/Just tell the world, “go hang,”/You’ll find a greater tonic,/If you go on swingin’ with the gang!”