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.



  2. Lighten up, asshole. If you charge people for three hours of theatre, it's open to review. And I might see the rest; I'll check with my spies, who hung around, to see if it's worthwhile. Nice nom de guerre, though; you do kind of make me want to gag.

  3. Oh, and would someone at Harvard please go over and fix Kati's computer? The caps key seems to be stuck.

  4. Thomas,

    Regular reader, first time poster.

    First off, thanks for all you do reviewing local arts. I try to see as many shows as I can and then afterwards see what bloggers said about them, and this blog is one that I frequent.

    I think you make some valid points, here. (I promise not to type in all caps.) But if you return for part two, you'll find Shepherd's absorption as Carraway full and touching. I agree that the first half is sluggish, but it's unfair to say that by your watch, in any other theater it would have been a full show and, therefore, ripe for criticism, regardless of it being finished or not. I was almost in tears as he read the last ten pages or so off-book, warm with the audience, not seeing a "the end" or "curtains," but speaking honestly as a man, as Carraway. It was outstanding.

    I didn't see the first cast you saw, so I suggest you see Sibyl Kempson embody Jordan Baker. Even during the first ten-minute intermission, everyone was blown away.

    But I'd like to respectfully say that your biggest error was focusing on the environment. I don't think Collins and ERS were trying to make any correlation between the text and the office (I cringe when I read "The Office" - ouch. Way off on that reference). I don't think Buchanan's racism was meant to be viewed in terms of 2010 (and shouldn't - that's not why they're producing this). And ERS and ART do have the resources to make it cubicleland, but that would just be tacky. The fact that it is nondescript, that the period is off a little, and that we don't know (or care) about what work occurs in that office, it makes it work better. The ambiguity is a nice blank canvas, letting the characters move in and out easily.

    It reminded me of an older form of theater, something from - and I may be off on my history, a little - Fitzgerald's period, and that is of the radio play. So I don't think they were off on their structure, especially with the light/sound technician on stage. It wasn't meta at all! He was a foley artist! Frankly, this aspect of your review bothered me. Geez.


  5. Thanks for your comment, Trent. There's of course always room for people to respectfully disagree about a theatrical event.

    Needless to say, I disagree with your complaint about my reviewing what I saw of Gatz. Some of my reasons are "technical" ones, but some are general ones. As a blogger, of course, I am free to write whatever I want about whatever I want. That's the whole idea. If what you're looking for are the "professional standards" of print reviewing, then read the newspapers, but believe me, my "professional" ethics certainly look good next to theirs. And at any rate, I didn't ask the Loeb for press tickets to Gatz - I went with a friend who offered me a ticket - so I was hardly breaking any kind of professional agreement with the A.R.T. It's also of some interest that I understand many people opted out as I did - reports are generally that crowds at Part II are thinner than at Part I. Which means, of course, that a lot of people are paying about $120 for half a show.

    Which brings me to my general point - $120 and 7 hours plus is quite a commitment to ask of people for a project that is, in my opinion, conceptually half-baked. I admit I was probably also reacting in my review to the hype surrounding Gatz. But you see, I saw the original Nicholas Nickleby and an early cast of Angels in America and so I know that there is just a huge gap between the buzzing success of those epic pieces of theatre and Gatz. This is a problem I often have with folks who write in - I've just seen a lot more than they have; I know how good this stuff can be.

    And then I have to point out that you don't really answer my critique of the show's concept - you just say it worked for you. Which is of course your right. But your comment would be stronger if you could explain WHY the lack of specificity of Gatz was a good thing. I also feel that you're missing something that was problematic about the production, but which I didn't go into detail about - the tricky question of racism in Fitzgerald. The text is full of both racial and anti-Semitic flourishes; how one deals with that is a key question in dramatizing this text, particularly when one is showily committed to including the WHOLE text. But I have to say that Elevator Repair Service pretty much just dodged the whole issue (particularly the anti-Semitic issues, as several irritated Jewish friends have let me know in no uncertain terms). And can you really claim that today, with our first mixed-race President in the White House, that questions of racism "shouldn't" be viewed in terms of 2010? If not, why not??

    I do like your suggestion that the piece somehow evoked the qualities of a radio play. I know what you mean.