Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service, based on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Directed by John Collins
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 2.3.19
NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place
by Ed Malin on 1.27.19
Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher, and Tory Vazquez in Gatz. Photo by Steven Gunther.
BOTTOM LINE: An epic, 8-hour staging of Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby that is arguably more entertaining than watching a film version or reading the book by yourself.
Elevator Repair Service certainly made an impression with their original 2010 New York staging of Gatz. This adaptation of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's beautifully disturbing tale of the Roaring Twenties, shows that it is indeed possible to enjoy spending most of a day watching an ensemble of thirteen read a book onstage. Fortunately, the show has returned to New York for several marathon performances, allowing those who missed it the first time to experience this amazing production at NYU's lovely Skirball Center.
On this mammoth stage, Louisa Thompson's set is the perfect frame for the story. It looks like a back office, the cavernous storage room of a business that most outsiders would never see. It's a slow day for Scott Shepherd, whose computer is not functioning; while repairs are underway, he picks up a certain novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and begins to read it aloud. The effect of the simply told, richly descriptive story is so powerful that everyone from his boss to the repairman to the office manager are eventually sucked into the tale, acting out supporting roles. Shepherd, who plays narrator Nick Carraway, reads most of the novel. According to the ensemble's website, he has the entire novel memorized.
The story begins in 1922 with Nick (Scott Shepherd) relating his move from the Midwest to work as a bond trader in New York. Nick settles in West Egg, a caricature of the affluent North Shore of Long Island. By reconnecting with his socialite cousin Daisy (Tory Vazquez) and her husband Tom (Pete Simpson), Nick learns of some elegant parties hosted by their near-neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), whose mansion is across the narrow bay in East Egg. There he meets Jordan (Susie Sokol), a creature of these times who takes a liking to him.
The shadowy recesses of the office set soon blossom into an expansive, expensive jazz-age party. Dancing and carousing happen among the shelves and filing cabinets. This was my first inkling of the brilliance of this adaptation. The ensemble members work flawlessly together, and in their treatment of Fitzgerald's deceptively simple text, show both the timeless value of mundane things and the joys and pains of discovering the many illusions of the modern world. Indeed, things are not as they appear. The first intermission follows Nick's statement "I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known."
As the Long Island summer wears on, we see much of the Roaring Twenties flamboyance that masks the unhappiness of men who have returned from fighting in the Great War. Gatsby, who wears a fabulous pink suit among other things, shows Nick photos of his student days at Oxford. Gatsby's charm and (allegedly long-standing family) wealth seem destined to attract Daisy, whose house is right across the water. (The famous green lightbulb on Gatsby's house is seen briefly when someone dims the lights in the office.)
Daisy's husband Tom seems to be the unrefined opposite of Gatsby. Everyone in the area knows that Tom has a mistress named Myrtle (Laurena Allan). In yet another clever scene, cast members hold up and flip through a dog calendar while Myrtle looks at a group of dogs and eventually adopts an Airedale puppy. Meanwhile, the reckless partying results in a jazz-age car crash, which we see as a loose tire rolling through the office door and further experience thanks to the show's sound designer Ben Williams, who is seated stage right next to his computer throughout the performance and creates a large measure of the ambience.
It would be a shame to miss the New York stop of Gatz's tour. Through unhurried reflection on and reconstruction of the novel, Elevator Repair Service makes a meta work of art. The drearingly normal world of an office, where people wear drab business attire and rarely smile, vastly transforms when its inhabitants take a break and look at life and each other from another point of view. Similarly, Gatsby views the rest of the world from the outside and then invites others into his dimension of style. Kudos to costume designer Colleen Werthmann for bringing the colors of the Roaring Twenties alive here. Mark Barton's lighting helps to emphasize the loneliness and the blazing passion these characters experience.
The award-winning ensemble has a history of successfully adapting literary works for the stage. Director John Collins is to be congratulated for guiding a cast of thirteen through such a sustained storytelling event. With multiple intermissions the performance doesn't feel as long as it is—from what I could tell, everyone came back to watch the delicious conclusion. Scott Shepherd compellingly narrates the book from cover to cover with class. Tory Vazquez as Daisy is a liberated woman who has to make some heartbreaking choices, all of which unfold quite believably. Over the course of the evening, Jim Fletcher as Gatsby masterfully lowers his guard and shows us more of his character's history, beliefs, and desires. Perhaps life in New York is not as simple as in the Midwest, but who said it was going to be? Fitzgerald died believing his work had been forgotten. Thank goodness we can take time to re-evaluate.
(Gatz plays at NYU's Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, January 23 through February 3, 2019. The running time is 8 hours with three intermissions including a dinner break. Performances are Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 2 (dinner break 5:30 – 7); Sundays at 1 (dinner break 4:30 – 6). Tickets are $65 - $150 and are available at NYUSkirball.org or by calling 212-998-4941.)
Gatz is created and performed by Elevator Repair Service based on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by John Collins. Set Design by Louisa Thompson. Lighting Design by Mark Barton. Costume Design by Colleen Werthmann. Sound Design by Ben Williams. Sound Engineering by Jason Sebastian. Stage Manager is Maurina Lioce. Production Manager is Liz Nielsen. Technical Director is Aaron Amodt. Associate Director is Steve Bodow.
The cast is Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher, Kate Scelsa, Susie Sokol, Tory Vazquez, Annie Mcnamara, Pete Simpson, Aaron Lindsman, Frank Boyd, Laurena Allen, Lindsay Hockaday, Vin Knight, Ben Jalosa Williams, Gavin Price, and Ross Fletcher.