October 20, 2010

"Gatz" vs. the Greatness of The Great Gatsby

Getting ready to see a theatrical marathon can be like preparing for battle.  People gulp cups of coffee.  They anxiously line up at restrooms to empty their bladders.  They exchange gallows humor about whether they can survive what’s to come over the next few hours.  Or at least those are some of the things I saw people doing in the lobby of The Public Theater this past Saturday just before the start of the eight-and-a-half hour marathon performance of Gatz, a complete, word-for-word reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby.” 

Gatz is a creation of Elevator Repair Service, a downtown company that has specialized in turning literary works into theater (click here to read a New Yorker profile about them). I hadn’t seen any of ERS's work before but I’ve become a theatrical-marathon addict and so I bought tickets as soon as I heard that the show, which has toured around the country and abroad for the past five years, was coming to New York. And when my husband K, who loves the Fitzgerald novel, said he had no interest in watching someone else read the book, I persuaded my theatergoing buddy Bill to see the show with me. 

The play opens in a sad looking office. One of the employees comes in and when he can’t get his computer—by the looks of it, an ‘80s-era Mac—to turn on, he picks up a copy of a book that turns out to be “Gatsby” and starts reading it aloud.  Nearly half an hour passes before any of the other people who have entered the office and begun their day’s work speaks a word.  When one of them does, it’s a line of dialog from the book.   

And that’s the conceit of the show.  Like Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, the play's reader is our primary storyteller and we see the action unfold through his eyes. In essence, the reader becomes Nick and his fellow office workers assume the character and lines of the others in "Gatsby’s" story.

It’s an interesting idea. But it didn’t work for me. During the two 15-minute intermissions and the longer 75-minute dinner break (the Public has set up a dining area in the lobby and Indochine across the street, where we ate, has a prixe fixe $28 Gatz menu) Bill and I tried to figure out why the show had been set in an office.  And why one that seemed to be in the ‘80s, instead of the Jazz Age ‘20s, the time when Fitzgerald set his morality tale about the rich and mysterious Jay Gatsby who yearns for the all-American, but married, beauty named Daisy.

We also wondered why director John Collins, who founded ERS (click here to read an interview with him), hadn’t established distinct personalities for the office workers so that we could more easily see the parallels between them and the characters in the book whose lines they speak and lives they assume. And while we were at it, we wondered why the sound designer spends nearly the entire show sitting silently behind a desk on the right-hand side of the stage tapping away on his obviously up-to-the-minute MacBook.

There are some clever touches in the show. But in an effort to keep the audience entertained, Collins resorts to the kind of anything-for-a-laugh shenanigans that the old “Carol Burnett Show” used to do when it parodied movies like “Gone With The Wind.”

Gatz's 13-member cast (some of whom list their day jobs in the Playbill—one teaches second grade at a private school in Brooklyn, another is, remarkably, the chief of staff for the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C.) isn’t as adroit as Burnett, Harvey Korman and the rest of their gang but they’re still amusing. Yet, when the same joke is repeated over and over again over the course of eight hours, the novelty wears off.  And because so much attention is paid to getting those laughs (when the woman playing Daisy starts to cry, a co-worker spritzes her face with water to simulate the tears) the deeper emotions of Gatsby’s story get lost. 

It made me wonder if we’ve gotten to the point where we can no longer deal with classic stories and their sincere emotions in a straightforward manner.  Instead, we deconstruct them the way Flemish director Ivo van Hoven has done with the current production of The Little Foxes that’s playing at New York Theatre Workshop through the end of the month or we bubble wrap them in irony as does Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, the new one-woman show about the poet now playing at 59E59 Theaters.  

Do we really need to cut the culture of the past down to post-modern size before we can enjoy it? “This is awesome.  This is awesome,” the twentysomething young man sitting next to me kept exclaiming when the actors made some ironic joke.  But he fidgeted during the play's more serious moments. And his girlfriend used those quieter times to check for messages on her iPhone.

Others, however, have been swept up by the play (click here to read the reviews that earned it a top ranking on StageGrade, although the folks there seem to have ranked this one on a curve). It was only in the final hour, when the other actors receded and the reader sat alone, reciting the final chapter of the novel, that I felt the power of Fitzgerald’s work. 

Unlike my husband K, and generations of Literature majors, I’ve never quite gotten why “The Great Gatsby” is considered to be the great American novel. But as I listened to the actor Scott Shepherd, who posses a deceptively seductive voice and amazing stamina, speak Fitzgerald’s lyrical passages, I began to get a glimpse of “Gatsby’s” greatness in a way that neither reading the book several times over the years or watching the 1974 movie (with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy) or seeing the 1999 opera (with Jerry Hadley and Dawn Upshaw in the roles) had ever revealed for me.  I would have been content to listen—just listen—to Shepherd read the book to me for hours.

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