Theatrical version of `The Great Gatsby` is novel
New York: Rarely has waiting around for a computer to reboot created such good theater.
That`s how the insanely inventive "Gatz" at The Public Theatre begins: With a regular guy in a tie coming into work, sitting at a desk in an empty, shabby office and finding his screen uncooperative.
So he reboots, which seems to take an interminable time. While he waits bored, he comes across a paperback copy of "The Great Gatsby" on his desk and begins reading aloud, in a halting voice, the opening line: "In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father ..."
Some eight hours later, he finishes. Every single world of the F. Scott Fitzgerald masterpiece has been spoken and, in the interval, the very concept of what constitutes theater has been expanded. It`s worth the sore posterior.
The production by the Elevator Repair Service may be a marathon for both actors and viewers — to be fair, there are two 15 minute breaks and a 75-minute dinner break — but it`s a unique experience. Comedian Andy Kaufman used to read "The Great Gatsby" to provoke his audience; this adds depth and meaning to a much-pored over novel.
Scott Shepherd is the narrator, the guy with the computer on the fritz. Over the course of the first few chapters, his modern office — it has battered file cabinets, a worn sofa and cartons of papers, but we never learn what business it does — becomes populated with co-workers, including his stern-looking boss, a few co-workers, an office assistant, a tech guy and the hunky janitor. There are 13 actors in all.
They mill about as he reads, whispering into phones or chatting wordlessly. Shepherd sometimes stumbles on the text — he botches "Buccleuch" like a regular reader — before growing more confident, making up funny and atrocious accents for each character`s dialogue. For the most part, his co-workers leave him alone: One woman leafs through a golf magazine; a pretty woman shuffles papers; co-workers gossip; and we see the janitor steal petty cash when no one on stage is looking.
And then, almost imperceptibly, the co-workers begin leaning over the narrator to help recite a few lines of dialogue in their own voice. Then they do it with more feeling without the text. And then before you know it the alchemy is complete: The cast members have become the characters.
That golf-loving co-worker has transformed into Jordan Baker. The janitor? He`s the rascal Tom Buchanan. The pretty woman? She`s Daisy. The stern boss? Gatsby. And Shepherd is now Nick Carraway, our narrator.
The action on stage anticipates the book by about a beat or two, meaning you see first what will be shortly described. So when Jordan opens her mouth wide in front of Nick, he soon reads aloud: "She yawned gracefully in my face." And so faithful to the book are the actors that every single word is recited — even the "he said" or "she demanded." That trick somehow never seems to get irritating.
Swivel chairs become cars, the office phone rings as it does in the book, photos tacked to the bulletin board become the book`s wall artwork, a desk clock turns into a gas gauge, the threadbare sofa transforms into a piano and rain comes from a spray bottle. The sounds of the book also come alive: Crickets chirp; jazz plays; motorcycles roar.
All that transformation is thanks to set designer Louisa Thompson, sound designer Ben Williams (who also plays several characters) and lighting designer Mark Barton. They`ve combined to make theatergoers often forget they are watching modern office workers; the audience is, instead, in the novel. Director John Collins holds all these moving parts together beautifully.
"Gatz," which takes its name from Jay Gatsby`s real name (as revealed in Chapter 6), is better than reading "The Great Gatsby" in one sitting, and much better than simply listening to an audio book version. It`s not really a full-on dramatic adaptation, nor is it a staged reading. It is something else entirely, something reinvented — appropriate for a book that explores exactly that.
Is it long? Yes, by the time it`s all over, you could have flown to Rome. But you`ll never think of "The Great Gatsby" the same way again. You might also look at the great books on your shelves differently, too.