Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NEW YORK REVIEW: THE GREATEST GATSBY - 'Gatz' by The Elevator Repair Service at The Public Theater

Need I really review Gatz? Elevator Repair Services revelatory not-really-an-adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgeralds masterwork The Great Gatsby has been touring internationally now for seven years, garnering nearly universal critical acclaim in the process. What could this innovative company possibly do with one more groveling accolade? But then I recalled that they have some new high-profile competition.

Although The Great Gatsby has been adapted for film and television a lucky number seven times to generally unlucky results, Baz Luhrman, director of Moulin Rouge! is releasing yet another big name film version later this year this time in 3D! Leonardo DiCaprio is slated to star, and it promises to be a visual feast, photographically presenting Gatsbys unfathomably lavish West Egg lifestyle on a gigantic screen.

A lifestyle so implicitly grandiose that literal visualization becomes nearly impossible - and hardly wanted. Any film adaptation of a literary property that inspires such fandom brings with it an enhanced scrutiny, but Gatsby is special. It’s not the characters you fall in love with; it’s the author – in the form of Nick, our narrator.

And that is what makes Gatz, which just opened its second New York engagement at The Public Theater, the undefeatable victor of all Great Gatsby dramatizations: the devotion to the author’s voice and the unbridaled freedom of imagination that that devotion inspires. An event that when described always brings about initial skepticism, I can assure you that few theatrical experiences have moved me to my feet as rapidly and willfully as did Gatz, a transcendent conversation on an art form’s relationship to an art form, and man’s timeless love affair with words.

The unchained imagination is supported by a clever and unsual concept, typical of Elevator Repair Service. East Egg and West Egg are green, opulent, and disgustingly wealthy New York suburbs with sprawling grounds surrounding mansions that rival Versailles. Well, Gatz, as directed by John Collins and designed by Louisa Thompson is set in a dank and dreary cement basement office, unremarkable aside from three large rows of shelves that extend into the wings, stacked with pile upon pile of nondescript papers and boxes. It’s a room that can be anything you want it to be.

Scott Shepherd, a remarkable and beloved Off Broadway presence and our Nick Carraway, walks to his desk amidst a cacophony of street noise, and starts up his computer. Or attempts to, for it idles frozen the entirety of the play. As he waits, tired, frustrated and bored, he haphazardly fidgets with his oversized rolodex, and out pops that iconic paperback copy of The Great Gatsby. With a moment’s hesitation, he opens the book and begins to read. He does not stop.

As the other employees enter and settle into their daily routine, a strange and magnificent shift occurs – they begin to embody the supporting characters, speaking their dialogue and performing their actions as Shepherd continues to read every line of Nick’s hysterical and perceptive narration. Elevator Repair Service has smartly cast actors who embody the essence of Tom Buchanan, Daisy, Jordan Baker, et cetera rather than picture perfect, literal likenesses. These standard, normal looking people become willing vessels for the audience’s dreams, transforming over the eight hours to whatever the audience member’s brain desires.

Directed by Collins, a swivel chair becomes a reckless automobile, the head of a doll becomes a child, a small gross room becomes a picturesque manor, and everything you ignore transforms into something you cherish. The creative and silly ways the ensemble tells the story are in no way a distraction from Fitzgerald’s majestic novel, but rather a friendly co-conspirator.

That sense of togetherness is a major key to the success of Gatz. Collins and his actors collaborate effortlessly with his sound designer, Ben Williams, who while also playing several small roles, stands onstage gracefully and hysterically accompanying the play with sound, both atmospheric and audible sight gag.

This overtaxed ensemble is endlessly giving, vital, and fun. Gatsby is a book you read in high school, and attached to those memories comes a whole lot of negativity and subconscious resentment, for me anyway. While I vaguely recalled enjoying the novel, it still retained a holier-than-thou stigma of stuffiness that only a midterm exam can impart. But hearing the words spoken aloud, new and fresh, I was shocked by how entertaining and thought provoking the material is, and all without a hint of pretension. The Great Gatsby is, without question, the great American novel.

The vast majority of the meticulously detailed words are spoken by Scott Shepherd, who in an epic feat of concentration, speaks the final half hour of the book from memory, as if completely captured by Fitzgerald’s mezmorizing prose. His generic midwestern drawl colors the verbiage just enough, allowing the author to speak the loudest.

Why Gatz? The snappy title comes from Jay Gatsby’s real name as stated in the novel, James Gatz. One less syllable, none of the grandeur, and yet unabashadly honest and removed of all floral display. As played by the Elevator Repair Service, The Great Gatsby is only Gatz, simple and unjudged. And so much pleasure and surprising enjoyment is aroused from that simplicity. You know who the most plain, bland, and monotonous character onstage is? Gatsby.

As portrayed by Jim Fletcher, Gatsby is bald and subdued, and the choice is nothing short of magical. In his intonation there is hardly any interpretation, as befits one of the most showy and enigmatic characters in American literature. Jay Gatsby became exactly who I wanted him to be, just as he did for Nick, Daisy, and his countless other admirers. But in the begining and the end, he was just Gatz.-Johnny Oleksinski

Elevator Repair Service's 'Gatz' plays The Public Theater through May 14.