Sunday, January 10, 2010
The good-but-not-great Gatz
One key performance in particular is not so great.
Gatz, from the New York company Elevator Repair Service, reaches us (via the A.R.T.) already anointed as legend - some seven hours long, including every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, fighting legal suppression by the author's estate, and staged in a new, conceptual manner that resonates deeply with The Way We Live Now.
But like most legends, this one proves to be only partly true. There are some good scenes in Gatz, and a few strong performances. The whole thing has to be admired as a marathon stunt that partly comes off. But the proceedings drag for nearly the first hour, the leads are miscast, the office (or should I say "The Office") concept comes and goes, and the tone fluctuates wildly (whereas Fitzgerald's tone never varies in the pitch of its jaded romance). If you were hoping for a Gen-Y classic to match, say, Nicholas Nickleby, you're going to be disappointed.
Then again, I left at the halfway mark, after a really dreadfully conceived "Chapter 5" of the novel. (Before you scream professional misconduct, ponder that I saw a full evening of theatre, at what would have been a full evening's ticket price.) When I read the quote from the Philadelphia Bulletin ("One of those I-was-there-productions people will talk about for many years") I had to LOL, because I imagine I was not alone in bailing - the guy next to me dozed off in the first fifteen minutes, and snored lightly till intermission (when he too left). Still, things could have pulled together in Part II in a way that justified the longeurs of Part I. Maybe.
But what went wrong? What kept me from staying for another three hours?
Well, to be frank, the concept, the acting and the direction.
Still, to be fair, how could it all have gone completely right? The novel is so iconic it may be untranslatable to the stage (its various screen incarnations have all been failures). On paper, however, the Elevator Repair Service seemed to have a very clever concept at hand, with its own escape hatch ready against problems of casting and type - the piece would be read aloud by an office crew as mired in the quotidian as the cast of Gatsby is awash in glamour. Rather than try to conjure the larger-than-life, Elevator Repair would give us the gap between Fitzgerald's characters and our own 9-to-5 existence.
And I admit, when I heard the concept, I too believed all sorts of fascinating counter-resonances could spring from it: it seemed to stitch together our twenty-somethings' new-found love of reading with that post-college shock they undergo when they realize they're now loan-saddled cogs in the system they used to ride so freely. And the conflation of the grim, utilitarian side of capitalism with the dim, hazy cast of Fitzgerald's dishonest millionaires seemed like fertile ground for theatrical invention.
Only those resonances don't materialize, not really (or at least not in the first half). For one thing, from the opening, the set of Gatz feels oddly wrong - it seems to be a low-rent trucking or dispatch company, complete with what looks like a Wang terminal from 1983. In this strange environment, the "computer guy" wears overalls, while the other costumes range in period and style from the early 50's to the late 90's. We can only imagine how resonant Gatz might have been if the Elevator Repair Service had had the resources to conjure an up-to-the-minute millennial cubeland - how much more disturbingly timely Tom Buchanan's racism would have sounded, how well one false sleekness might have played out against another! But as it is, Fitzgerald's time-specific fantasy loses some of its punch when it's contrasted with a much more muddily-defined one. And somehow my heart sank as I realized that there was a sound and lighting guy hanging out in the office, too, openly running cues for the show - yes, the whole set was boringly meta. It was a self-conscious theatrical concept. (No wonder the guy next to me was snoring.)
So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when the conceit that we were watching a real-life office reading Gatsby came and went at the director's whim (and the demands of story theatre, a variant of which is really all Gatz amounts to). After that dull first hour - which corresponds to the opening exposition of the novel - the characters begin to take the lines from the book as dialogue, and little scenes are constructed on the office sofa or by the water cooler. And we're very grateful; but we do feel that the why and how of these various interpolations requires some sort of explanation if they're going to "mean" anything. At the same time we begin to notice that our narrator, Scott Shepherd (who it's rumored has the whole novel memorized) awes us with his stamina, but doesn't really convey Nick Carraway's romantic-intelligence-on-the-brink-of-cynicism (he plays only his honest, Midwestern side), and that Ross Fletcher, though he has an intriguing, hooded kind of melancholy as Gatsby, is nobody's idea of a fallen golden boy, and eventually comes off as just weird.
What's surprising is that even with both its central performances essentially misfires, Gatz does gain some traction, thanks largely to its actresses. Victoria Vasquez brought almost too much melancholy depth to Daisy (and the scene in which she nearly turns down Tom Buchanan was the one moment the production brushed tragedy), and I got a kick out of Laurena Allan's broad, blowsy Myrtle. Meanwhile Susie Sokol did a lot of oddball schtick as Jordan Baker, but her sense of alienation grew on me. And director John Collins managed to conjure some scenes from the novel quite well - in particular the drunken party in which Tom Buchanan breaks Myrtle's nose mounted wonderfully in its energy to its brutal finale.
But the production never seems to gain any momentum from its best scenes, and some of its gambits - like the weirdly broad deflation of Gatsby's and Daisy's meeting at Nick's cottage - were clearly misjudged. I wondered at times if Collins and company really did understand the novel they seemed to love so well. Still, at its best the Elevator Repair Service rises to more of the challenge of Fitzgerald's text than probably any other previous adaptation. I still may see the second half. But then again, I may just dig out that dog-eared paperback and read it again myself.