Wednesday, October 1, 2014
If you go
What: "The Nervous Set"
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18
Where: Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.
Cost: $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and $20 for students. The performance features cabaret-style seating for the audience. Tickets can be purchased at the Lawrence Arts Center or online at lawrenceartscenter.org.
The Lawrence Arts Center's newest production may be a celebration of all things Beat Generation, but its director promises the story is as modern now as it was when poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac helped bring the literary movement to the forefront in the 1950s.
“The Nervous Set,” opening this evening at the Lawrence Arts Center, is a musical retelling of the life and death of Neurotica, a short-lived but radical magazine founded in 1948 by real-life beat figure Jay Landesman. In the musical, characters modeled after Landesman and his famous circle of friends search for truth and ponder personal identities in 1950s Greenwich Village.
“It speaks to the revolution each generation faces when they become creators. In that way, I think it’s very universal,” director Ric Averill said. “It’s a story about love, and it’s also a story about art and censorship, which is certainly timely for right now.”
Keeping with its “hipster” plot and music, “The Nervous Set” is a bit of an obscurity. Averill, the Arts Center’s artistic director of performing arts, stumbled upon the little-known work while the Arts Center was in the midst of planning the centennial celebration of beat icon and one-time Lawrence resident William S. Burroughs' birth.
“Are there any musicals that tell the story of the Beat Generation?” he remembers asking his intern at the time, whom Averill credits with discovering the play.
“The Nervous Set” first opened in St. Louis in 1959. Critics hailed its minimal set and jazzy score as a bold theatrical innovation, but its new producers, after moving the play to Broadway, didn’t feel it was making enough money, and “The Nervous Set” shuttered after about 20 performances, Averill said.
With permission from the estate, Averill has used Landesman’s original unpublished novel, the basis for the play, to “restructure and retool” the production. And now, he says, it’s as fresh as ever.
The cast includes regionally known actors Seth Golay, Megan Birdsall and Kirsten Paludin as well as New York City-based Tom Picasso and Alex Kipp. A live band of local musicians will provide the production's jazzy tunes.
Over the past few weeks, Averill and his crew have worked to transform the Lawrence Arts Center theater into a “hip” cabaret-style lounge. On top of the existing stage, another stage that resembles a giant turntable has been built. A psychiatrist’s couch and an 8-foot-tall martini glass anchor its sides, and copy from Neurotica magazine provides the backdrop.
As an added nod to beat culture, beatnik waiters and waitresses will serve classic soda pop and beat-inspired cocktails before the show and during intermission.
Chairs and tables circling the outside of the stage will seat an audience of about 100 to 120 people.
“It’s forcing the perspective in,” said Golay, who plays a fictionalized version of Landesman in the play. “Having the audience closer gives an opportunity to bring them into our kooky world.”
A world that isn’t much different from our own, agreed castmate Picasso (his character is loosely based on beat icon Allen Ginsberg).
“What I think resonates is that they were friends — Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs — who talked to each other and shared ideas” he said. “Those guys, they all hung out on couches, just like kids do in Lawrence.”