Gatz Review: The Great Gatsby, Verbatim
In my younger and less vulnerable years, before I had been assigned “The Great Gatsby” in three different courses, I would have welcomed the idea of watching someone on stage spending six and a half hours reading aloud F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel – all 47,000 or so words — as we’re promised at the outset of the play “Gatz,” which has now opened at the Public Theater.
The work of a downtown theater company called Elevator Repair Service, “Gatz” has become a cause-celebre among avant-garde New York theater people for nearly six years, after a workshop reading of it led to a cease and desist order from the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which had given the rights to the novel for a more traditional stage adaptation aiming for Broadway. “Gatz” since has played all over the world, and throughout the United States (most recently at the American Repertory Theater in Boston earlier this year), and everywhere it has gone, it’s been raved about. Now that it is finally in New York, how could I not go?
When the play begins, a bored office worker played by Scott Shepherd enters his run-down office, finds his computer isn’t working, and looks for something to do. He flips open his Rolodex and out pops a paperback copy of the Fitzgerald novel about the rich and reckless Daisy Buchanan and the self-invented man infatuated with her, Jay Gatsby (born James Gatz.) The office worker begins to read “The Great Gatsby” from the beginning, verbatim. His co-workers go about their business, ignoring him.
It takes about a half hour of his reading the text word for word before those office-workers – played by a dozen other members of Elevator Repair Service — suddenly start reciting (not reading) the dialogue in the novel, playing the characters. “Civilizations going to pieces,” says a co-worker, played by Gary Wilmes, who looks decidedly blue-collar, with a bunch of keys dangling off his front belt, but is playing Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, the impossibly rich and arrogant man who was a college classmate of the narrator, Nick.
It takes another half hour – during the novel’s party scene at the Manhattan apartment of Tom’s mistress Myrtle, when people get drunk and say and do things they should not — before music kicks in, and sound effects, and “Gatz” has brought “The Great Gatsby” fully to life on the stage. There are enough thrilling and compelling scenes like this to fill a normal-length stage adaptation.
It takes another hour after that first fully-realized scene for me to realize that the office worker (Ben Williams) hunched over his computer off to the side of the stage, is not only one of the novel’s characters. He also doubles as the play’s sound designer; the computer that I thought was just a prop is in fact his sound board. It also occurs to me that there is something clever going on in the role each office worker is given in the novel. The young woman (Susie Sokol) who sits around the office reading Golfer magazine, winds up playing Jordan Baker, Nick’s love interest in the novel, who is a competitive golfer.
By the end, I realize that I have traveled a similar route both to that nameless office worker and the character he is in effect playing, Nick Carroway, the narrator of the novel. My reluctance to attend such a play matched the general reticence of Nick the narrator at the beginning of “The Great Gatsby,” and the boredom of the office worker in “Gatz” who begins to read the novel. All three of us become swept up in the action of the novel.
They travel further than I do. If “The Great Gatsby” is in some ways a good choice for this kind of staged verbatim reading – it’s narrated by a central character after all, and is full of wonderful dialogue, terrific scenes – it is also a novel with plenty of paragraphs that do not especially sing, and dense sentences that are better left for the eye than the ear: “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”
The solution by director John Collins, founder of Elevator Repair Service, seems to be to create this parallel scenario of office workers going about their business. So, as Shepherd reads the less dramatic parts of the novel, his co-workers bring him letters to sign, or do some typing, or take boxes from the tall metal shelves, or try to fix his computer, or call him on the telephone – activity that seems nearly guaranteed to distract the audience from Fitzgerald’s words.
What is the point of a full verbatim reading if the director is tacitly admitting that not all the words are worth paying attention to?
Still, as tedious as some of “Gatz” is, I understand the appeal of a theatrical marathon, and I am obviously not alone; before it even opened, it was extended twice. New York theatergoers are drawn to anything with buzz, no matter what the obstacles. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into…”The Great Gatsby.”
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The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street)
By Elevator Repair Service, from the text of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Directed by John Collins; associate director, Steve Bodow; E.R.S. producer, Ariana Smart Truman; sets by Louisa Thompson; costumes by Colleen Werthmann; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Ben Williams
Cast: Scott Shepherd (Nick), Jim Fletcher (Jim), Victoria Vazquez (Daisy), Gary Wilmes (Tom), Susie Sokol (Jordan), Laurena Allan (Myrtle), Ross Fletcher (Henry C. Gatz), Mike Iveson (Ewing), Vin Knight (Chester), Aaron Landsman (George), Annie McNamara (Catherine), Kate Scelsa (Lucille) and Ben Williams (Michaelis).
Running time: 8 hours 15 minutes, including two intermissions and a 75-minute dinner break.
Ticket prices: $140.
Gatz is scheduled to run through November 28
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