by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday January 21, 2010

A scene from Gatz.
A scene from Gatz.  

At the onset of Gatz, the daring theater piece created by the New York based theater company Elevator Repair Service, a geeky, 30-something office worker enters a drab office. The meticulously detailed space, which fills the wide expanse of the American Repertory Theatre's Loeb stage, looks like it hasn't been changed since the 1980s. No neatly arranged cubicles fill the space, rather it's a mix of mismatched furniture, racks filled with overstuffed files, stark lighting and a cramped office with a window in which a no-nonsense office manager presides. Central is a table where an ancient CRT sits, as well as true office artifact: a manual typewriter. The man enters with his coffee, sits and attempts to boot up the decrepit computer, which doesn't respond. Little wonder the man seeks escape. And he does; not by surfing the Internet, but through the simplest of means - by picking up a paperback book, The Great Gatsby, crammed in a Rolodex and reading it aloud.

For the first few minutes, he reads in a sotto voice, tripping over words and contending with a surly boss and equally disgruntled co-workers. At this point it would be easy to get a sinking feeling - will this six hour-plus theatrical equivalent of books on tape prove as interesting as watching paint dry? Soon enough though the office worker - who becomes the novel's narrator Nick Carroway - finds his stride and the undivided attention of his co-workers, who slowly join in the story-telling. At this point - perhaps a half-hour in - any fears that Gatz is going to be as dreary as its office setting vanish; instead something magical happens: F. Scott Fitzgerald's lyrical prose takes hold and his Jazz Age saga unfolds in a compelling fashion.

Scott Shepherd in Gatz.
Scott Shepherd in Gatz.  

A rigorous approach

This kind of conceit - the dramatized novel - has been done before, most notably with the superb stage version of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby that the Royal Shakespeare Company performed in the 1980s and, more recently, with Peter Parnell's heartfelt adaptation of John Irving's The Cider House Rules; but neither of those shows approach the rigorous style found here. Told in two parts with a dinner break, every word of Fitzgerald's 200+ page novel is spoken: nothing is condensed or omitted; which begs the question, can a work meant to be experienced through an internalized experience (reading) transfer to a more participatory medium (theater) on its own terms and holds its own?

For the most part, it does. There are, of course, longueurs (what six-hour-plus play wouldn't?), but what makes this production so fascinating is the fusion between the Fitzgerald's romantic world of bootleggers, flappers and Wall Street traders and the colorless environment in which the book is being acted out. Anyone who has ever worked a dull office job will easily sympathize with the need to escape, and that these workers do so with such ease only underscores how effective the concept is. And as they inhabit Gatsby's world, you wonder just who these people are and what is it about the story that captures their attention? Is it Fitzgerald's commentary on class, sex and the American Dream? Or is it simply a diversion from their day-to-day tasks? We never find out. Nonetheless the tension between the real world and the imagined one drives the first half of the play, though it is mitigated somewhat in the second half, when Fitzgerald's melodramatic narrative takes over and slowly winds down. It's difficult to deny that by hour six, a certain weariness sets in and the novel's denouement loses some of its intended impact. Perhaps it is best to see Gatz on consecutive days and not in one day-long sitting.

It's to the credit of director John Collins that the actors only minimally attempt to impersonate their iconic literary counterparts - they pretty much retain their office personas. Also it's fun to see how inventively Collins uses low tech theatrical techniques to portray Fitzgerald's many settings and situations for both humorous and dramatic ends. There are wonderful moments: as when Tom Buchanan, Daisy's boorish husband, takes Nick to meet Myrtle, his mistress, and they spend an drunken afternoon in a Manhattan love nest in which the increasingly animated action plays out on little more than a dowdy sofa and some mismatched chairs. Or the tense scene in the Plaza Hotel (beautifully played in dark shadows) where the main characters come to escape a stifling heat wave, only to be caught up in the heated drama of their own making.

It is scenes such as that one where the finely tuned acting and meticulous direction join to make this stage version dramatically gripping. There is, of course, theatrical enhancements: the harsh office neon dissolves into evocative lighting patterns (designed by Mark Barton) that underscore the novel's darkening tone; and the ingenious sound effects, designed and executed by company member Ben Williams (who sits behind a laptop on the left side of the stage), are wonderfully effective in the execution of the story-theater concept.

Much has been said of company member Scott Shepherd (who plays Nick) having memorized the entire novel and appear onstage for the piece's entire length. Shepherd quietly commands the stage throughout, acting both as stage manager and Fitzgerald's dry commentator on the indulgent times Nick lives through. When towards the end he dispenses with the worn paperback entirely, he, eerily enough, appears to embody the novel, capturing Nick's scolding voice with rising passion. It is difficult not to be impressed by his stamina and his intelligent, marathon performance.

The other actors deftly balance their office personas with their literary counterparts: as Gatsby Jim Fletcher may not resemble Fitzgerald's golden boy (to begin with, he's bald and in his 40s, which makes him the butt of a joke), but he's touchingly tragic in conveying Gatsby's swaggering romantic naivetť. While Victoria Vazquez never attempts Daisy Buchanan's Southern drawl, she convincingly suggests the regret that sits just beneath her delicate surface. As the doomed Myrtle, Laurena Allan is hilariously blowsy in the first half, then sadly pathetic in the second; and Gary Wilmes brings the boorish Tom Buchanan strikingly to life. What, though, is most memorable about the performances is how tight this 13-member ensemble is - they play the piece like a chamber ensemble playing Mozart, and it is beautiful to watch them interact.

In the program notes it's said that Gatz was inspired by the late comic Andy Kaufman, who use to joke that he was going to go out on a stage and read The Great Gatsby aloud. That such an odd idea proves so theatrically satisfying is testament to the imagination and skill of the Elevator Repair Service. Let's hope that the legal snafu that has kept them from doing the show in New York - their home town - will be lifted. (Another stage version, authorized by the Fitzgerald estate, has kept Gatz out of New York, though this version has played Europe and a number of American cities to a mostly positive response.) They deserve to perform their inspired work to the cheers of a hometown crowd. As for our hometown crowd, we can thank the new regime at the ART for another daring, out-off-the-box theater experience. If anything, their season is showing how a venerable institution can re-invent themselves through the bold vision of a new artistic director.

Gatz continues through February 7, 2010 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information visit the American Repertory Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].