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John Ventimiglia and Adira Amram
in Door Wide Open
(Photo © Tony Torn)
Nobody said that dating an artist is easy, and this especially holds true for the lover of a Beat poet. The Beats were never known for their fidelity; rather, they were known for their rampant alcoholism and drug use.

Jack Kerouac was certainly no exception. In fact, he epitomized the itinerant lifestyle with On the Road and made the restless Dean Moriarty the hero of his age. Women were drawn to the sense of excitement and adventure that Kerouac exuded. Joyce Johnson saw in him an escape from the conventional life of a 1950s woman, but this nice Jewish girl looked for commitment in all the wrong places.

How could Johnson have expected to bring stability to Kerouac's life? It's hard for anyone to look at a lover objectively, and Door Wide Open -- a theater piece drawn frm the lovers' correspondence -- stands as a testament to that fact. John Ventimiglia (The Sopranos) plays Kerouc, while the role of Joyce at two different stages of her life is split between Amy Wright and Adira Amram. The show is performed in a smoky, Lower East Side poetry spot, complete with faded brick walls. The technical trappings amount to spotlights and microphones, and the actors indulge in Canadian whiskey during the performance. They also suck on cigarettes until the ash approaches their fingertips as David Amram's jazzy score dances in the background.

It's easy to understand why Johnson would wax romantic about the Beats' aura. She saw Kerouac's world through the haze of smoke, liquor, music, and poetry; her memoirs breathe life into the old cliché about a poet's vision. When the lovers sit on a Brooklyn pier, Joyce learns how to appreciate a view that once looked like mere buildings to her. (Anyone familiar with Manhattan's tragically altered skyline can appreciate this poetic view of downtown.)

The audience never actually sees the couple sitting on that pier; the staging resembles a poetry reading more than it does a play. Jack and Joyce each take a microphone, papers in hand, and dramatize their love letters. An older and wiser version of Joyce sits between them to narrate the action. Age breeds wisdom, and the narrator teases her naïve younger self for always leaving her door open to Jack.

The couple's friends sit at tables below the stage. Joyce's friend Elise Cowen (Bethany Wright) sits tragically in a corner and pens her diary in a marble composition notebook. Jack's mistress, played by Anita Durst, flirts with director Tony Torn, presumably playing a café patron. (Oddly enough, Torn resembles a younger Allen Ginsberg.) Other Beats, such as Gregory Corso, are often mentioned in these memoirs.

Wide open doors are loaded symbols here; the title is the verbatim message that Joyce sent Jack when she found out that he was returning to New York. But, as much as she gives to Kerouac, Joyce does keep one door closed: She never tells him about the anguish that his infidelities cause her. Instead, she feigns nonchalance about their dead-end relationship and pretends to accept his life on the road.

John Ventimiglia is well cast in the role of Kerouac; his Brooklynese accent and cool disposition create the image of a street-smart loner, but the talented actor also lets the character's vulnerability show. (Though passionate and independent, Kerouac had a conflicted personal life and constantly moved in and out his mother's house.) The production's other stage-and-screen celebrity, Amy Wright, is a pleasure to watch as the older Joyce, who can look back on her life with a bittersweet nostalgia now that her tempestuous relationship has long since ended.

For the most part, the younger cast members hold their own in the company of these seasoned professionals. The role of the younger Joyce is, in many ways, more challenging role than Wright's; Adira Amram must play an emotionally guarded person while being open to the audience and, although she does have some trouble walking this line, hers is still an extremely impressive performance.

Joyce Johnson attended the opening night performance. I wanted to ask her why she set herself up for so much heartache with Jack Kerouac, but her memoirs already leave the question wide open for interpretation.

[Note: After writing this review, I learned from the show's press agent that the director has since changed the staging drastically. There are now three stools for Jack and the two Joyce's, and the minor characters are voiced-over as their images are projected on an upstage screen. Also, I'm told that the stage clutter evident at the opening night performance has been tidied.]

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