10 April 2012

We are all Gatsbys, we are all Carraways

Last week I went to see "Gatz," the adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY currently up at the Public Theater. I've been turning it over and over in my head ever since.

Elevator Repair Service, the company that created and acts in "Gatz," also produced the Hemingway adaptation I saw and loved last fall. If you're new around here I have wanted to see this production since it was prevented from performing in New York entirely (due to rights issues with the Fitzgerald estate) and traveled to places like Philadelphia and Cambridge that, for whatever reason, I couldn't make. I bitterly regretted not going the first time it played the Public in 2010. This year I decided I would be stopped neither by the ticket price nor the prospect of burning half a personal day to go. (They specialize in full-text adaptations, so the presentation including intermissions and dinner break clocked in about 8 hours. Curtain up at 3PM, walking to the subway past the closed coffee shops of Nolita at 11:10PM.)

It's been several years since I re-read THE GREAT GATSBY, but if I were to start it again tomorrow I would still not have the experience I had of this play, of the massive volume of text (49,500 words, according to a Playbill piece about Scott Shepherd who plays Nick Carraway and is responsible for most of it) all coming at me, all at once. It drew certain aspects out, like the number of overt references to people's eyes even ahead of the Eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleberg, or Fitzgerald's multiple uses of the verb "corrugate" to describe what rain does to a body of water. Immersion will do that.

Having a scene depicted onstage can also bring into focus things a novel may not specify, because the process of fleshing them out onstage prompts certain decisions. Case in point: the proximity of characters to each other in parties or crowded scenes (like Myrtle's apartment), where the reactions -- or lack thereof -- of other people contribute to the overall picture of the action taking place. Likewise, when Nick Carraway leaves that party with one of the men, there's an edge to his absenting himself, and a suggestion that they are doing more than simply getting away from the noise.

Carraway is the watcher, positioning himself very consciously as the observer at the heart of THE GREAT GATSBY. It is this position, of privilege we could say, that allows him to do exactly what he criticizes Tom and Daisy for doing in the end -- leaving the East and the tangle of relations that he has developed while he lived on West Egg. No one walks away blameless. "Gatz" takes the position that this is a lie, because even when he's apart from the action, he's still there. Nowhere is this clearer than after Gatsby's death when, as Carraway, Shepherd is center stage with the body of his friend on the couch behind him. Most of Shepherd's final presentation is given off-book, so it feels like he's just talking to us -- us, because he doesn't have anyone else, except he does because in this adaptation, we are being his Carraway. We are witnesses to the end. To what extent, then, is his loneliness still (always) a state of mind? How much of his distancing between himself and the East Egg crowd he runs with a matter of choice?

Not surprisingly, the other standout actor besides Shepherd was Jim Fletcher as Gatsby. Both he and Shepherd are older than their fictional counterparts are recorded as being, which lends a wistfulness to their activities, the sense that this really is their last grasp at something that has previously alluded them. Fletcher has less to do but, thanks to a bit of staging trickery, appears onstage long before we are introduced to him, and seems to linger around every corner until then. The play clears its throat when he begins to speak. (The actor is also quite tall, adding an element of physical comedy to his desperation in waiting for Daisy or patrolling the fringes of his own party. Eat your heart out, Redford.)

Disappearing into a dark theater for eight hours to re-experience a familiar book is probably not most people's idea of a good time, and "Gatz" took at least through the first intermission to win me over. (I have never thought about the pacing of the novel so intently.) For me it was transformative, like I knew it would be; I accepted what it was telling me, though I would like to think I worked for it. I guess that's why I waited so long.

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