Steven Dietz gets around.
As one of the most in-demand playwrights in the land, he's regularly shooting off across the country to help one of his commissions make the leap from page to stage. Minneapolis. Phoenix. Chicago. Nashville. New York City. And, of course, his home of many years, to which he and his family return every summer, Seattle. One of his latest plays, Rancho Mirage, is even receiving a rolling world premiere, courtesy of the National New Play Network, which means that come the fall, Dietz will have to bounce from Olney, Md., to Watertown, Mass., to Indianapolis to Denver to really see that work off the ground.
Austin is fortunate that every once in a while Dietz can be lured off the road and persuaded to open a play here. Zach Theatre gave the country its first look at his wistful romance Shooting Star, and the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance, where Dietz has taught playwriting and directing since 2006, premiered his contemporary spin on Schnitzler's La Ronde, 360 (round dance). The UT College of Fine Arts also commissioned a new work from the playwright, and Zach is mounting the first production, which opens April 3, but even though the play premieres at home for Dietz, it shows the writer on the road again.
Mad Beat Hip & Gone takes as its inspiration the famous cross-country odyssey of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady that served as the basis for the Beat Generation novel, On the Road. In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, the two are searching for freedom from the conformity overtaking America, and that means a lot of drinking, jazz, sex, and hitting the road. And Dietz follows them on their raucous, sensational travels – or rather his protagonists do. He sets his play in a car on the tail-fin end of Jack and Neal's, where two other young men, Danny and Rich, are desperately seeking their own direction in life, as well as the kind of "kicks" that the guys in the wheels in front of them come by so readily.
Based on a draft of the play read at Zach last fall, Dietz has tapped some essence of postwar American youth: a sense of rootlessness in this great big nation and a yearning to find one's place in it that seems to lie somewhere on the open road. As soon as we can drive, we're "gone" in more ways than the beat sense. The script is fueled by Dietz's characteristic humor and a bittersweetness often seen in his work. And he's had the good sense to include among the characters a jazz saxophonist who provides a live soundtrack to this road trip. If the rest of Dietz's plays are any indication, Mad Beat Hip & Gone will soon be making its own way across America, stopping in dozens of cities with theatres hip to new work. You might want to catch a ride while it's still inside the Austin city limits.
Mad Beat Hip & Gone runs April 3-28, Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2:30pm, at Zach's Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar. For more information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.
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