Monday, May 14, 2012

Gatz: Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past

The cast of Gatz (Scott Shepherd, centre). Photo by Joan Marcus

By the time I caught up with Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service’s staged reading of the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a few weeks ago, it was in the midst of a second run at the Public Theatre in New York and it had been touring. Gatz, which began performances in 2010, has been an unqualified hit for the company (whose founder, John Collins, directed it); it’s won a raft of awards and on weekends audiences are still lining up in hope of cancellations. The play runs for six hours plus three intermissions, including a ninety-minute dinner break, so it’s a considerable commitment of time and energy. I was certainly glad I’d made the investment but I’m not entirely sure what it was I saw.

The setting, designed by Louisa Thompson, is a contemporary office, indifferently furnished. When the computer of one of the employees (Ben Williams, substituting at the performance I attended for the usual star, Scott Shepherd) stalls, he pulls a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel out of a drawer and begins to read it out loud, and though his reading is interrupted briefly by the passage of time (the day ends; he returns to the office at night and again the next day), it’s continuous. For a while he’s the only reader, taking not only the role of the narrator, Nick Carraway, but the other characters as well, but the positioning of some of his co-workers and the odd prop or gesture echoes the text in an almost offhand way, and eventually some of them join in. Eventually they take the other parts, usually acting them, off book while he remains a reader. However, when Jordan Baker (I saw Annie McNamara, standing in for Susie Sokol) -- the beautiful, confident golf pro whom Nick meets through his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Victoria Vazquez) and her husband Tom (Gary Wilmes) and falls into a romance with – confides in him the story of Daisy’s interrupted romance with the young soldier, bound for the Great War, who turns out to be Nick’s neighbor Jay Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), she reads it rather than acting it. And on the two occasions when Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s gangster associate (based on Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series), turns up, he’s invisible; Nick reads his role like a stage manager going on for an ailing actor.

The actors haven’t been cast because they exhibit the qualities we associate with Fitzgerald’s celebrated cast of characters, and they don’t make any attempt to evoke the period (or, in the case of the actresses playing the two southerners, Daisy and Jordan, the accents). Vazquez, for example, has the aura of a contemporary intellectual and she’s much warmer than the Daisy Fitzgerald wrote; she’s reminiscent of the young Elizabeth McGovern. Gatsby (referred to in the program as “Jim” – an allusion, as the title of the play is, to his original identity as the poor-born North Dakotan Jim Gatz, before he reinvents himself as the unimaginably wealthy Jay Gatsby) is balding and rather nasal, and though he’s a mesmerizing performer in his way, he certainly doesn’t suggest Gatsby’s charisma. The first party scene, the drunken interlude at the house that Tom sometimes shares with his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Laurena Allan), is staged to look like an office party, and the wingdings at Gatsby’s mansion in West Egg, across Long Island Sound from the Buchanans’ dock in East Egg (these are Fitzgerald’s semi-satirical version of the Hamptons), are approximated by some general bustle around the stage – including, for example, one of the women’s spilling a bag of Oreos and having to gather them up. But sometimes Collins’s staging and Mark Barton’s beautiful lighting evoke images from the book, like Nick’s first glimpse of his neighbor at night, looking over the Sound, or Myrtle standing at an upstairs window of her house, restless and increasingly desperate, as she spots Tom in a car outside at her husband’s gas station. The actors don’t appear in period costumes until, suddenly, some of them do: Myrtle in her cream-colored evening dress, Gatsby in his pink suit. The sound design (by Williams) generally provides the offstage noises appropriate to the story: quarreling, motors arriving, twenties music, and so on.

Annie McNamara and Kate Scelsa
Why a generic office locale? Neither of the two answers I can come up with has much to recommend it. The first is that we’re meant to see the reader as a reflection of Fitzgerald’s Nick, stuck in an empty job selling bonds to which he’s not committed and from which he eventually retreats when he’s had enough of New York and of the vacuous, sealed-in aristocracy represented by the Buchanans and which an arriviste like Gatsby can never penetrate. The second is that Gatsby is the story of every ordinary American because Gatsby’s impossible and bankrupt dream is the American dream. The problem with the first is that Fitzgerald spends almost zero time in Nick’s workplace; aside from the idea that he’s selling bonds (i.e., nothing), it doesn’t have special meaning in the novel. The problem with the second is that it’s a cliché.

How is the style of the production supposed to work, and what is the style, anyway? That’s at least a more interesting question, though I’m not sure I can answer it either. At first I was reminded of André Gregory’s experiment with Uncle Vanya, which wound up as Louis Malle’s great 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street, where actors in rehearsal clothes with sparse, sometimes anachronistic props, acting on an almost bare playing space in the orchestra of an abandoned old theatre, get so deep into Chekhov’s characters that our minds supply the physical details that the production doesn’t bother with. In Vanya, a stray item like the “I Love New York” coffee cup that Wallace Shawn’s Vanya drinks from will intrude on Gregory’s suggested realism and remind us that we’re watching the bare bones of a production, but only momentarily, and the effect isn’t Brechtian alienation but its exact opposite: to make us marvel at how completely the actors have wrapped us up in the play and the characters, to echo, in a way, the effect of those moments in the live theatre when we’re stirred briefly out of a magnificent performance because the man next to us coughs or the woman in front of us shifts her head. The difference is that the “I Love New York” coffee cup is a metaphor for those things – for anything, in fact, that seems to make the possibility of being transported at the theatre implausible, and consequently for the miracle of that transported state. But Gatz works very hard to keep us aware, certainly throughout the first half, that we’re watching not only a piece of theatre but a staged reading of a classic novel. Is it Brechtian, then? Well, only at the moments when the actors comment on their characters or on the action, like Jordan executing a mock Charleston at one of Gatsby’s parties or an actor in a chauffeur’s cap wheeling Daisy onstage on an office chair (to the tea party à trois Gatsby has asked Nick to give so that he can have a social excuse to become reacquainted with her) or Gatsby giving Nick a sideways glance when he lies transparently about his upbringing. I hated these touches (there are plenty of them in the first half), when the production ironizes the text and gives the impression – though, to be fair, I don’t think this is intended – that the company is superior to it. They reminded me of times during the first season of the TV series Mad Men when a scene underscores the quaintness of the early sixties, with all that broad-daylight imbibing and all that cigarette smoke and all those casual dangers we now know to be wary of, like children playing in plastic. (I don’t know if Mad Men has continued along the same track, because all that editorializing put me off so much I stopped watching it after season one.)

Jim Fletcher, Victoria Vazquez, Scott Shepherd
But sometimes the juxtaposition of staging or performance with Fitzgerald’s ideas feel magically right, and sometimes an image or even an incidental detail dovetails mysteriously with one’s experience of the book. When Nick and Jordan’s backs are suddenly reflected in the upstage window, we think of the power of the past, which Gatsby deludes himself into thinking he can recapture and which is encapsulated in the famous final sentence, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The file boxes stacked on shelves stage left, a feature so common in an office setting that we barely notice it at first, acquires a similar resonance as the play moves on. The tech (Frank Boyd) who goes to work on the reader’s computer wears overalls that allow him to disappear seamlessly into the role of George Wilson the gas station owner, whose misapprehension that he and not Tom is sleeping with his wife, compounding his grief over Myrtle’s death by a hit-and-run driver he assumes is Gatsby, leads him to shoot the titular character in his swimming pool. (When Norma Desmond shoots Joe Gillis at the brink of her swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard, surely Billy Wilder is evoking the most celebrated shooting in modern American fiction, just as Tony Camonte in Howard Hawks’s Scarface is a pop-culture knock-off of Gatsby when he shows off his expensive shirts.) Even the odd, anachronistic clacking of a typewriter at the other end of the reader’s desk has the effect of bearing us back into the past – especially since the typist is Jim Fletcher, who is about to play Gatsby.

Fletcher and Boyd are stand-outs among the cast, but Williams has the showpiece part, reading the whole damn book and playing Nick and several small roles (not only Wolfsheim but the cop on the scene of the accident and the witness into the bargain). Scott Shepherd is reportedly amazing in the part; I was sorry not to have been able to see him. But Williams gives an extraordinary performance. At first his line readings seem to sit on the edge of irony or perhaps bemusement, but after a while those qualities are simply subsumed into his reading of Nick’s character. Fitzgerald has often been criticized for giving Nick less color than the other main characters (perhaps Jordan is the exception here), but when you see the book performed in its entirety in this way it seems to be his story more than Gatsby’s: the story of his moral struggle with the vacuous, solipsistic and finally callous aristocracy that the Buchanans represent and to which he reluctantly belongs and the story of his other struggle to comprehend and evaluate Gatsby, who he thinks for a long time embodies everything he loathes but who turns out to have real depth and substance. (Gatsby makes a terrible mistake about Daisy, whose romantic allure is only that her voice is “full of money,” but he stands by her, taking the fall for her when she, at the wheel of his car, knocks Myrtle down.) But Nick can’t resolve his feelings about Gatsby, because Fitzgerald can’t and so of course we can’t either. The last thing he says to him – besides thanking him for his hospitality (“we were always thanking him for that – I and the others”) – is a shout across the lawn after they eat one last meal together: “They’re a rotten crowd . . . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” But he adds, for us, “I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”

This is one of the production’s most evocative scenes, and at the end of it Gatsby is offstage, so we’re keeping him in our heads, just as Nick must after he’s been murdered by poor, broken George. But Fletcher returns in the flesh for Gatsby’s death and he stays upstage right up to the funeral.

During his reading of the aftermath of Gatsby’s death, Williams flips through the novel impatiently, as if he were looking for something he can’t find – the meaning of that death, perhaps, or even the meaning of that life? Then he closes it and just speaks the lines to us, and he doesn’t open it again until he gets to its famous last words. Long before then, though, for reasons I can’t explain, Gatz has enveloped us in Fitzgerald’s marvelous story and those marvelous characters in that Vanya on 42nd Street way – precisely the effect I’d given up hoping for. It happens sometime after the dinner break, early in act three (all the annoying cute ironies have slipped out by the second half), and by act four the play has become hypnotic. We’re left with the potent feelings that The Great Gatsby always evokes.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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