The Playgoer: REVIEW: Gatz

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Monday, September 10, 2007


Over Labor Day weekend, at leisure and away from the distractions of home and work, might very well be the best way to immerse yourself in Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's marathon 7-hour staging of the entire Great Gatsby. That's what I did last weekend, catching this rare fugitive production at the Philadelphia Live Arts fest, the closest it will come to NYC for quite a while, as long as the Fitzgerald estate blocks it from coming near a potential (but not really likely) more conventional adaptation on B'way. (Jason Zinoman first documented this battle of the Gatsby's in the Times last year.)

It was well worth it.

Especially at $35 a ticket for the whole event. When and if it ever comes to the Public or NYTW (who ERS claims are both committed to it) you can bet on at least $50 each for "Part 1" and "Part 2." In Philly we even got a free dinner buffet! (No West Egg highballs included, unfortunately. Come to think of it some coffee would have been nice, too....)

While the idea of Gatsby acted out in a modern day office by average worker bees may smack of "directors theatre" to some, the revelation of Gatz is the acting of the ERS ensemble. As director John Collins certainly makes many bold choices. But the highlight of the event may very well be just watching (and hearing) such an engaging cast so totally inhabit great writing. The "concept" may distance all it wants--but ultimately the actors' absorption in their characters flesh out Fitzgerald's meaty prose so satisfyingly, you almost forget their used-surplus office furnishings and outlet-mall wardrobes (designed with good humor by Colleen Werthmann).

But of course one must begin any discussion of Gatz with that setting, or even just the set. Daring to be not just drab but ugly, Louisa Thompson's design of random mismatching chairs and tables, fake-wood wall paneling, and scattered outdated equipment (including one malfunctioning green-screen computer) instantly calls to mind less a place of commerce than an autoshop. While the production adroitly avoids any "period" altogether, visually we're really circa 1983, it seems--or at least a workplace that hasn't had an upgrade, or a cleaning, since then.

(Caveat lector: as I divulge more and more information about the production, I am not taking care to avoid spoilers, since most of you probably, sadly, will never see Gatz. So consider yourself alerted.)

The sprouting out of Fitzgerald's tale of Jazz Age grandeur from this utterly earthbound and downright depressing everyday environment is a glaring juxtaposition that gives Gatz much of its unceasing tension and fascination.

The classic novel is introduced into this world at the beginning in the body of a generic dog-eared paperback that one drone (Scott Shepherd) finds stuffed under a Rolodex lid. Now it's not always easy to buy the premise that begins to be established here--namely, that as he begins to read the book aloud from page 1, others in the office continue to arrive and go about their business. But questions of "do they hear him?" or "isn't this guy supposed to be working!" soon become immaterial. Spectators soon have to make even more mental adjustments when, about 20 minutes (or 10 pages) in, office-mates begin chiming in with the dialogue of other characters in the novel--off book! Call it internal fantasy, call it a loose construct, but as Gatz sets out defining its own "rules" in its first hour or so, it becomes more and more "convincing" on its own theatrical level.

This is not a "concept" that seeks necessarily to undermine, negate, or mock the text. In fact the mission of Gatz is a textual fidelity of the highest order--but, unlike more conventional "adaptations" there is no desire here to match text to a preconceived notion of its visual counterpart. And if you've seen the 1970s film version of the novel (and more recent mini-series) you know that the temptation of all that Roaring Twenties sultry eye-candy can easily end up a distraction from the core of the book, which was written within that period about itself, not as later hyped-up nostalgia. (One could say Gatz restores the novel as forever contemporary.) Here, the Jazz Age is quite simply a state of mind, and all the tuxedos, flapper dresses, and mass-Charlestons normally considered de rigeur for the story, merely superfluous.

With Fitzgerald's 182 pages as its score, Gatz unfolds as a massive symphony of fully embodied words. But make no mistake, the action is suited to the word, the word to the action, even if obliquely. The office phones keep ringing, but as if on cue from Fitzgerald. (And lo and behold fictional characters are on the other end! Either that or very confused customers.) The paper-pushing of office routine persists, but the props become interchangeable with those referenced in the novel, even when there's no visual resemblance. (A nondescript ragdoll, for instance, becomes very multipurpose.) But as we progress further and further into the book, the office does increasingly seem to disappear--especially through Mark Barton's very expressive lighting which does not feel constrained to observe the confines of the office at all. Barton's palette is downright cinematic in its fluidity at times--especially in the beautifully staged set-piece of the pathetic Plaza Hotel argument late in the book, rendered in almost film noir tones.

But no matter how teasingly "real" the staging becomes at times, there is one constant distancing element--and that is the book itself. That ragged paperback in Scott Shepherd's hand keeps reminding us that he is never totally "Nick Carroway" but always... well that nameless office guy. (The ERS programme tellingly lists the cast only in alphabetical order, refusing to "identify" anyone with any of the novel's characters, even though the character assignments to these actors on stage are consistent.) Aside from the functional purpose (we presume!) the book-in-hand serves our "narrator" so that Mr. Shepherd doesn't have to learn a seven-hour monologue*, the visibility of that book on stage is the constant reminder and calling to attention of the play's "literariness"--in a way that even Brecht, who was fond of that term, would appreciate. The words are literally forever disembodied from the actors, even as they work to embody them. Given that framework, the two sole exceptions become seismic moments--one where Shepherd hands the book to a colleague to read an extended character-monologue, the other toward the end, when he shockingly puts the book down and speaks seemingly extempore what is essentially the book's lengthy epilogue. Here Shepherd the actor, his anonymous office figure, the character of Nick, and the pen of Fitzgerald himself all merge eerily to wonderful theatrical effect.

[*Wow, the ERS website claims Shepherd really does know the whole book by heart!]
While the set and the presence of the book constantly defamiliarize the story and highlight the theatricality of everything, director Collins and the ensemble also pull off some simply great scenes bringing some of the novel’s episodes to vibrant stage life. The lack of naturalistic parameters allows for some heightened behavior, sure, but it perfectly matches the frenzied tone of some of the writing, and some of the characters. Something magical happens early on, when Tom drags Nick into the city for an impromptu party at the pi├Ęd-a-terre he’s set up for his mistress, the ill-fated mechanic’s wife, Mrs. Wilson (played with scary but believable desperate abandon by Laurena Allan). Crammed into a small corner of the “office” around the one comfy couch (loveseat size) the actors, perfectly in tune with the ongoing narration, become more and more manic in their silly revelry, constantly pawing and tripping over each other as the effects of booze, horniness, and pure aggression intensify. (See above right photo.) By conjuring up the feeling of giddy junkies from any age, the energy emanating from their performances here nails the mania of the “Roaring Twenties” (at least as Fitzgerald describes it) better than any Hollywood art designer ever could.

Another scene that stands out for its originality is the big reunion scene of Gatsby and Daisy. Gatz plays it at the tempo of a romantic farce—which at some level it is. In Fitzgerald, Gatsby is meticulous to the point of insanity about the conditions of the meeting and in dictatorial in how he enlists Nick to effectively do his wooing. The comedy achieved here (in what might strike some as at the expense of an almost sacred literary moment) highlights Gatsby losing his usual cool, reverting to a lovesick schoolboy, and reminds us how ultimately ridiculous and insurmountable his dreams of Daisy really are.

As I hope you can see, the staging concept does not preclude clearly defined "characters" from emerging on stage amidst all this, and the cast excels at bringing new life to familiar High School English-Class names. Of all the office workers, Gatsby himself turns out to be, of course, the reader's boss--a nice surprise when the eponymous one finally "enters" the novel quite a ways in. Jim Fletcher, a veteran of the uninflected Richard Maxwell style, is an eerily perfect casting choice, but maybe one that could only come off in this unusual production. Tall, balding, and square-jawed, with an almost military bearing (and an uncanny resemblance to a young Gerald Ford) he is more the strong silent type, than the charm-oozing Robert Redford portrayal, for example. The long stretches of Gatz where Shepherd/Carroway must narrate pages and pages about Gatsby while Fletcher just sits there next to him, silently staring out into space, capture perfectly the title character’s essential inscrutability. There’s something a bit rough-trade even about Fletcher—and the traces of a street accent—that make totally credible Gatsby’s implied life as a kind of gangster. But his taciturn, almost forced elegance also gives away this is a man who can pass for class, but doesn’t fit. (One of the surprise bonuses of the extreme textual fidelity is the costuming of Gatsby for the entire Part 2 in the funny “pink suit” that Fitzgerald stipulates for some of the late scenes. It’s something Redford would never have been allowed to wear, but is a wonderful touch of awkward gaudiness yet endearing sensitivity in the character.) Much of the allure of The Great Gatsby as a book is how much a cipher its titular character is, and Fletcher renders that onstage about as much as is possible for an actor while still being highly specific and utterly compelling to watch.

Gatz is such an ensemble effort that singling out performances only goes so far in describing it. Still, I must record the indelible impression left by bulging, baggy eyes of Robert Cucuzza, who makes Tom Buchanan into a kind of demonic clown, dangerously unstable in his deep-seated insecurities about class and masculinity. (In the frame of the office life of the piece, Cucuzza/Buchanan is a kind of tyrannical facilities manager or security guard, with a belt full of keys.) The affable and sporty Susie Sokol manages to make that famously little princess of literature Jordan Baker likeable, as Jordan and Nick’s relationship emerges as much more complex and even-handed as I ever realized from the novel. Annie McNamara mines her usual closet of endearing comic cuckoos for many of the novel’s walk-on women and Vin Knight lends a nice dose of 1920’s wan effeteness to some of Fitzgerald’s catalog of loser hangers-on. Meanwhile, Ben Williams sits there quietly downstage right, very much in the “office”, at a desk, manning a computer that really is the sound system for the show. (As with lights, Williams' sound design is quite sophisticated and atmospheric.) That he manages quite a few effective supporting roles while doing so (like a thuggish gatekeeper who shuts Nick out with the press of a cue-button on his console) demonstrates again the depth of talents of the ERS ensemble.

Of course the performance that is the glue holding all this together is Shepherd’s. He is the book, after all. And the totally self-effacing, calm way he takes us through it page by page not only suits the calm exterior of the character of Nick, but also skillfully takes the audience in his hand as narrator/performer without ever forcing any of the language, so comfortably does he inhabit Nick/Fitzgerald’s voice. At the end, I sensed Shepherd’s own voice (a trace of a Southern drawl?) surfacing, as if he was taking more and more ownership of the words and the character. The transformation of “guy in office” to “Nick Carroway” had become complete (especially when he puts the book down). A nice dramatization of the power of literature, eh?

Maybe this is why the whole office frame/concept gradually disappears as the day wears on. When Mr. Gatz (Gatsby’s father) enters in the final hour, he is played not by one of the original office mates but an older man with seemingly no other “real world” identity who wanders on from the aisle. By this point, with “Gatsby”/boss apparently really dead, are we now in a different “reality” altogether?

(I have a strong hunch, by the way, that the grey-bearded “Ross Fletcher” playing Mr. Gatz is not unrelated to Jim Fletcher. Perhaps another trick on our perception of layers of reality here, even if only inside knowledge to the cast…)

I can’t deny I was disappointed at the very, very end that director Collins and ERS just faded out without "closing the frame" of the office framing device by somehow returning to or referencing it. Yet it also became clear by the end that the concept of the setting has really just served the goal of performing this story with a minimum of "culinary" distraction in a rough theatre style. And rather than “directors theatre” it’s the actors who have been driving it all seven-plus hours, carrying us along in their valiant boat, beating against tides, on the kind of intense meditative journey that is sadly a luxury in today’s theatre.


Anonymous said...

your hunch is right. Dr. Ross Fletcher is Jim Fletcher's real-life father. Not a professional actor, but an irresistible bit of casting...

Anonymous said...

really good stuff. I must say that I was less unhappy with the end since "closing the frame" is a pretty predictable move and, at the risk of sounding like a sap, i do think that seeing/reading an extraordinary work like this doesn't leave us in the same hum-drum place that we started. the whole second act slowly strips away the design and i thought by ending with shepard by himself reciting the final words by heart, ers once again put the emphasis on the book (as opposed to a theatrical conceit), which seems to be much of the point of this unusual, bold adaptation. Still, many thanks for giving such a detailed, insightful account.

Playgoer said...

Thank you, Jason. The ending was certainly not without its own simple beauty. And I agree it was prepared by the gradual stripping away of the office life...

I forgot to mention in the review how interesting it was that most of the relatively (and surprisingly!) small audience in Philly were New Yorkers like myself (including Mr. Zinoman) willing to travel many miles (ok, an hour and a half) to check it out. The rest of the audience were regular Philly Fringe subscribers. One lady behind me was surprised to learn the young folk next to her had come from New York City to Philly to see theatre! If only she knew...

And thank you, Anon, for confirming my Fletcher father-son theory...