We see an office. A bland, vaguely decrepit place; all metallic grays, industrial tans, and accumulated grime. Long fluorescent lights. Standing files on a desktop. An ancient black shoe-sized cordless phone. A haphazardly cluttered bulletin board. Metal storage racks stacked high with deteriorating cardboard boxes, organized only by scrawled words on the sides. There’s no hint as to what the people in this office do, but you know it has to be mind-numbing, the kind of work that makes you dread getting up in the morning.
A man enters and hangs up his overcoat. He’s slim, red-haired, neatly comported, blue shirt and conservative tie. He goes to his work station and tries to turn on his computer. It doesn’t work. He toggles the switch on the tower below his desk. Taps the keys uselessly. Nothing. He leans back in disgust, or maybe just ennui, and idly flips open a monstrous black Rolodex to his left. Stuffed inside is a well-worn paperback copy of THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He opens the book and begins to read it aloud — and he does not stop. Aside from some dialogue provided by colleagues, he reads every single word (except for chapter titles) until there are no more.
That’s a bare-bones description of Elevator Repair Service’s astonishing production GATZ, which has finally arrived in New York after years of local producers’ haggling over rights. It takes seven hours and forty-five minutes to reach Fitzgerald’s final line, counting two intermissions and a dinner break. (Put another way, one full-time clock puncher’s daily shift.) Yet GATZ straddles form and content in a way I’ve never before encountered in a theater – and hurrah for this age-old but undercelebrated art form, for the effect is something I believe I could only experience in a “legit” theater. It’s a triumph, a fully avant-garde piece that actually means something, a seemingly cuckoo idea that explodes like a Roman candle and causes oohs and aahs, only they’re time-released: they occur long afterward.
Just after a glowing review appeared in the New York Times, my friend, the writer Scott Edelman, casually asked online if anyone had caught this piece. It just so happened that we had bought our tickets three months earlier and were headed down to the Public Theater later that very day. Act I began a little after 2 p.m., and we filed out of Act IV not much past 10. When I got back home, I messaged Scott that it wasn’t necessarily the best piece of theatre I’d ever seen, but it was definitely the most remarkable. I’m going to try and explain why I used that particular word, but you should know some things first.
One: I’ve never read THE GREAT GATSBY. My wife Linda has, but it was one of those classics I missed in high school and college – everybody has a few of these lapses – and after I saw the 1974 Jack Clayton film, I basically removed the novel from my personal must list. I had no intention of spending any more time with these snooty, self-absorbed people. It was as if I’d read the Cliffs Notes version: I knew the characters and their relationships, and the basic plot of the story, but I’d never luxuriated in the prose.
Two: If you do not know that basic plot and for some godforsaken reason wish to remain ignorant, you should probably stop reading right now. The story is critical to what I want to say, but I’d rather not spoil it for you if you think there’s any chance you might seek it out in the future. (P.S.: I’ll bet you won’t.)
Three: I’m well aware that Andy Kaufman “read THE GREAT GATSBY” to concert audiences, even performed the bit on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Though this stunt almost certainly inspired GATZ – Elevator Repair Service are serious Kaufman fans and even use the comedian as a character in another of their shows – the purpose here is edification, not stultification. ERS continue with GATSBY until the bitter end, appending to a theoretically nutty premise a startlingly powerful payoff.
The narrator is played to near-perfection by Scott Shepherd. I only noticed one flub, and that was understandable: his concentration had been so intense that he stammered on the word “fifteen” when he broke character to announce the first intermission. He begins reading in a bored monotone befitting the dingy office, stumbling over words, apparently killing time until the IT people can fix his computer. Time itself is malleable here: he looks at a desk clock for the first of perhaps a dozen times, and it never, ever changes. Other office workers trudge in: there’s a receptionist; a strapping handyman with a set of keys; a cute girl who lazily leafs through golfing magazines; and finally the office manager, a gaunt, balding fellow with a permanent near-scowl of utter seriousness. They pantomime office routine as if there’s nothing strange about their colleague reading Fitzgerald aloud. At one particular moment – it’ll be different for every audience member – you notice that the narrator’s interpretation has become far more confident and animated; he’s really into it. Shortly afterward, the handyman steps forward and utters a line of dialogue. He has become Tom Buchanan. From this point on, all dialogue is acted, and the narrator – obviously Nick Carraway, and “Nick” is how he’s listed in the credits – supplies everything else, including “he said”s. The golfer has become Jordan Baker. An elegantly dressed woman is now Daisy Buchanan. And the story displays an utterly new dimension, for the novel is insinuating itself. It’s taking over.
The office manager leaves to run an errand early on, and when he comes back, he’s exchanged his bland “corporate” tie for a hot yellow one, the boldest blast of color on the stage. His first line – “I’m Gatsby” – occurs not quite a third of the way through, and Linda remarked at dinner that she’d forgotten how long it took to bring on the title character. Actors know that the juiciest part in a play can actually be the smallest one – so long as it’s the character everybody else can’t stop talking about, not even after he’s dead. Gatsby seems to have been here the whole time.
By now, another remarkable thing has happened. The novelty of the staged reading has utterly worn off, even turned transparent. Except for one monologue of Jordan’s, Mr. Shepherd never lets the book out of his grasp until he comes to a bravura recital at the end. (On their website, the troupe answers the question “I heard that narrator guy actually knows the whole book by heart. Is that true?” with “Yes.”) The artifice of flipping pages in a paperback book never leaves the stage, yet its constancy allows you to ignore it. Aided by superb lighting and sound design (sound man Ben Williams is on stage and takes some small roles), not only can you forget the fact of reading, you can also forget your very surroundings. Instead, you’re in Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, or Tom’s Manhattan apartment, or a “well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar.” Stephen King has a lovely phrase to describe becoming immersed in a book: you “fall through a hole in the paper.” Well, you do that here. That lost-in-the-story feeling is so powerful that it startles when such a scene is over: Oh yeah, I forgot — we’re really looking at an office set on a stage! And a guy’s reading a book! That’s two levels of reality which have to be sundered for such magic to work, yet this production does it again and again. The “long” running time is no more of an issue than the hours that pass unheeded when you’re really enjoying a book. Except for that grimly stalled desk clock, time passes when we’re not looking.
This is an arresting new way to “read,” to “see a play.” It combines elements of both art forms into something different that could only happen in front of your eyes. As a film, with one’s vision sternly constricted, this conceit would sink like a stone. I do feel that I’ve experienced the novel, like anyone who listens to an audio book; it requires a similar bit of imagination. But this is even better, more vivid and immediate. There are precious few (but a few nonetheless) costume clues to help you picture a scene; the actors by and large do not resemble their physical descriptions in Fitzgerald. Therefore, much of the heavy lifting will be your responsibility. Only one scene, the drunken party at Tom’s New York apartment, calls attention to itself by having the characters fling office files and papers around the stage. It’s a great visual representation of debauchery, but, atypically, it does bring your attention back into the office. The whole boozy mess is then cleaned up while you watch, the restored neatness anticipating the reappearance of Jim Fletcher as the office manager, now transformed into Gatsby.
This tilted angle between literature and theatre does expose some shortcomings. As with THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, a dramatic climax occurs well before the piece is finished. Just as we have lots more play to see once Shylock is foiled in court, so THE GREAT GATSBY deflates dramatically after Gatsby’s murder. The reader remains warmed by Fitzgerald’s luminous phrasing, but his coda, taking up all of the concluding chapter, feels soft and languid to the playgoer, even as Mr. Shepherd finally casts the book aside and concludes from memory, a bit of theatricality that seems calculated to elevate the text. (After all, every stage actor works “off book” every night.) His performance is iconic, brilliant, magical. After it’s over, you find yourself wondering about ephemera. How the hell does he keep his voice? I didn’t see any understudies listed, and it sounded to me as if Victoria Vazquez, as Daisy, was fighting a little huskiness. What happens if Nick takes sick? Does a stage manager crack open the paperback and start reading? We also felt some of the miming in Act I, before the cast took over Fitzgerald’s dialogue, was broad and offputting, particularly Susie Sokol as Jordan (undoubtedly following director John Collins’s instructions). She’s a very gifted physical comedienne, but we didn’t want the tale spinning in that direction, in opposition to the sense of dread and gloom that permeates Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age — and indeed, in Act II Ms. Sokol settled down and absolutely nailed Jordan’s monologue.
You can’t stop thinking and talking about what you’ve just seen, a reaction reserved for the highest level of artistic fireworks. I’ve written before about the virulent tendency to give anything a standing ovation, but this night, everyone in the audience, including us, leapt to their feet. Enthusiastic applause seemed to fall short of what we really wanted to communicate to the cast and crew. This thing is transcendent. It joins my very short list of unforgettable moments in the theatre. If I could, I’d actually go back again and strap in for another eight hours.
1/12/11: Now I have read the novel, and I found a vital difference between it and the theatrical version, at least for me. The final chapter, the coda after Gatsby’s murder, which felt so drawn-out on stage, doesn’t read that way at all. The obligation of faithfully staging the visit from Gatsby’s aged father, the funeral, and Nick’s gorgeous final summation — which Mr. Shepherd performs without referring to the book — make this sequence run longer than it should, longer than even the author intended. Fascinating: three months after I saw it, GATZ continues to illuminate.
2/28/12: GATZ is returning to the Public for another New York engagement. Here’s a trailer for the show.
3/8/13: I saw a MoMA preview of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation tonight, but I still think this theatrical piece is the best GATSBY ever.