Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's Artistic Director, said it best-- that upon his first time seeing GATZ, he was transported. He "walked out into Soho that cold winter night convinced that The Great Gastby was the greatest American novel ever written." It took him a few days to come back to earth, he said, and to remember that Moby-Dick was actually the greatest American novel, and to start the process of bring it to The Public.
I would probably argue the Moby Dick promotion, but its only been three days since my viewing, and its possible my views will shift. I love this novel. Loved it the first time I read it, and drank in every single word on Friday night in what can best be described as a prayer. My mind started wandering exactly two times during the performance, both of which I mentally bookmarked, and reread later that evening from my own worn copy in my bed in Brooklyn, clinging to the haze.
I knew all about this play before seeing it-- read the stellar reviews, contributed to the buzz, and gawked with the masses regarding its odd format. It's a 8.5 hour play-- starts at 3pm, ends at 11:30-- that uses for its script the entire text of The Great Gatsby (that wonderful blue and white paperback copy we all read in High School), each and every word and no additions. The formula doesn't make sense, any of it, which is clearly part of its appeal. I was told I that I couldn't get a ticket, that the production has been sold out for months, but reader, please. I found myself there at the Public Theater on Friday afternoon, Playbill in hand, front row center, eagerly awaiting what would surely be an eight hour thrill.
The show opens in a drab office in a nondescript industry, somewhere in America. A khaki-wearing redheaded someone enters the space, hangs his coat, and reaches to turn on his outdated clunky computer. The computer won't start, he tries again, murmurs to a coworker or two who have entered looking bored-as-all-get-out, and suddenly, VOILA!, our leading lady of a book pops from a Rolodex as we all audibly adjusted forward in our seats to discover how the hell this was going to play out.
Our redhead flips to the first page, and slowly begins reading the novel aloud-- seemingly for the first time-- and clunkily starts the ride. I knew it would work, that we would soon be successfully transported to East Egg from Office Building Somewhere, but those first twenty minutes were key to drawing in an audience in dulled mass confusion only to charm our socks off four short hours later.
Scott Shepherd, the redhead, of Elevator Repair Service took on the role of Nick Carraway--that daunting task of narrating the show and speaking all but the scattered dialogue aloud-- although I'm pretty sure he was actually playing Jimmy Stewart playing Nick Carraway, which was a fantastic decision on his part. His voice dipped and clung, a melody of normalcy that we recognize from an era gone by.
Literary snobs love to cry disappointment to adaptations of classic novels, arguing that they shouldn't be touched, and cannot be approved upon. But this is different-- its as if Collins always wanted to remake Gatsby, but understood the task as a setup for gigantic failure, as all abridged versions are. Then he decided to not take anything out, read it in its entirety, and completely dismiss the idea of costuming and set design all together. We already know what it looks like, you see. We don't need him to tell us, the book does that just fine. (THIS was just announced, by the way, and its two leading men actually sat behind me at Friday's production, ha!)
It is with this attempt that we can't argue the execution because we all saw the story as we saw it the first time we read Gastby, and I will bet that most of us geeks sitting there for all 8.5 hours read it every year. I could tell you here, exactly what happened on that stage, but even I am unbelieving of it now. The famous twinkling party scene at Gatsby's manner was played out as the cast cleaned up papers and spilled whiskey and note cards strewn across the floor from the 'Myrtle Apartment' scene right before. Jordan Baker served as our comedic relief, and the swimming pool was played by a leather couch. Gastby wore a magenta suit, and Daisy was brunette. None of it adds up, which is the point of it all, you see.
I left the theater upon its intricate and compelling conclusion understanding the real feat of whole thing: GATZ is a true testament to the human mind and the scope of an often neglected grown-up imagination. It's also a testament to good theater and to good writing and--let us not forget-- the book itself, but it is the human mind that takes us from a theater, to an office, to Southampton Proper without explanation. I've written about this before-- my annoyance at too-literally-executed set designs on Broadway and Off-- and GATZ all but laughs at big budget attempts to create a castle, when their audience is fully capable of building one themselves.
Why the office? It was someplace to start-- a challenge, I presume, of John Collins to his actors. It was also about READING BOOKS, and turning off our computers and ipads and droids, sitting down with a book, which come to think of it, is the same message we received from the other show I saw last week. Interesting. At any rate, the show closes with Nick seated at his desk, after a slow stripping of office supplies and papers and the computer itself, sometime in the past 4 acts. I thought perhaps they would nod back to the office setting at the end, fixing the computer and returning to daily life, but they didn't and I'm glad. It was the quiet ending Fitzgerald offered, so we left still in Gatsby's world, and not our own.
GATZ is closing on the 28th, so SEE IT. This show is magic, I mean it, and despite what you will hear, there are tickets to be found.