BWW Reviews: Road Trip Tale MAD BEAT HIP AND GONE Is a Bumpy Road

BWW Reviews: Road Trip Tale MAD BEAT HIP AND GONE Is a Bumpy RoadAnyone who's ever been on a road trip knows that they are either incredible adventures or events you hope to never repeat. Strangely, the world premiere comedy Mad Beat Hip and Gone, written and directed by Austin's own Steven Dietz,falls somewhere in the middle. While there is much to love about the production, now playing at Zach's Topfer Theatre, overall it's a bit dull and not entirely memorable.

Dietz's premise, in which he follows two friends in the car behind Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady as Jack and Neil traverse the country in a road trip that would eventually inspire Kerouac's On the Road, is certainly strong and interesting. It's always fun to see an author loosely adapt their work on an iconic piece of Americana, and anyone whose read On the Road (which I admit I have not) is bound to find a few inside jokes and references here and there.

His casting choices are inspired as well. Jacob Trussell gives a solid performance as the directionless Danny, and Jon Cook is enjoyably daffy and quirky as Danny's friend, Rich. Babs George is a scene-stealer as Danny's mother, a woman who is equal parts June Cleaver and Mrs. Robinson, and Erin Barlow is fantastic as the energetic but mysterious Honey, though she gets far less stage time than she deserves (the fact that she is in only one scene in Act I is puzzling). Rick Roemer, one of the strongest actors in Austin, is similarly underutilized as Danny's father Albert and as the various men Danny encounters on his journey, all of whom resemble his father, and Topaz McGarrigle adds some texture to the evening as a saxophone player who occasionally pops up, but once again not as often as he should.

As always with productions at the Zach, the technical production quality is unparalleled. Michael Raiford's rusted sheet metal set evokes the feel of roadside towns in middle America in the 1940s and 1950s. Susan E. Mickey's costumes are wonderful and period appropriate, and Colin Lowry's projections are mesmerizing, as is Michelle Habeck's impressive lighting.

Sadly, Dietz's writing doesn't match the quality of his cast and creative team. At many times, it feels as if Dietz does not know what he wants his play to be. It's a drama. It's a comedy. It's realistic. It's surrealistic. It's all of those and none, and the transitions in tone are often jarring. Still, there are moments of incredibly strong writing, particularly in the more realistic sequences but they're overshadowed by the moments that evoke head-scratching. Some of the surreal moments, such as suitcases appearing on the stage, work well too, yet at times the visual poetry goes too far and feels as if Dietz is trying his hand at the Tony Kushner-esque magic realism without quite the same level of success.

There are a few problems with plot and character development as well. Many ideas, such as Danny's need to resolve his relationship with his father or Danny and Rich's struggle to enter adulthood and find their identity, go unresolved despite Dietz attempts to the contrary, making it extremely difficult to identify what the overall point of the play is. But the biggest problem is the length and the frantic quality of the final half of second act. There are half a dozen scenes which could all serve as end points, and yet it continues, arguably out of Dietz's desire to tie up loose ends, none of which actually get tied.

While Mad Beat Hip and Gone showcases some of the best performances and the most stunning designs you're bound to see in Austin, overall the show doesn't quite live up to expectations, largely due to Steven Dietz's troubling script. The complete effect is like driving on a foggy night with only one headlight.

Photo: (L-R) Rich (Jon Cook) and Danny (Jacob Trussell) on the road with Honey (Erin Barlow). Photo: Kirk Tuck

NOTE: Recommended for mature audiences.

MAD BEAT HIP AND GONE plays the Topfer Theatre at 202 South Lamar now thru April 28th. Performances are Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2:30pm with an additional performance on Sunday 4/21 at 7:00pm.

Tickets are $25-$70. For tickets and information, please visit www.zachtheatre.org

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From This Author Jeff Davis

Jeff Davis is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television where he obtained his Bachelor's Degree in Theater with an emphasis (read more...)

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