The Great Gatsby is a funny book. I knew from reading and teaching this novel before that it has several funny moments, but I never quite realized just how comic it is until I saw Gatz, by Elevator Repair Service. The theatrical presentation of the book highlights and magnifies the humor and wry, at times sarcastic, observations of the book’s narrator. Characters who are boorish or clownish become even more so, worthy of laughter before they even speak. While at times ERS took some liberties to mine further laughs than the book would naturally allow, hamming it up a bit (as with using a doll for Daisy’s talking daughter), this was usually done tastefully or wittily (such as the third act’s facial tête-à-tête between the narrator and the sound operator/actor).
As the T:BA festival guide notes, Gatzstarts when an ordinary white collar office worker stops work (his outdated computer won’t turn on) and begins reading The Great Gatsby. The play follows him reading the book aloud, and soon after other office workers begin saying the lines of characters in the book, blurring the lines between the characters in the office and those in the novel. However, the characters in the office never quite achieve personalities, thus allowing the novel’s characters to shine (though there are some analogues: the book’s mechanic George Wilson is played by an office IT guy, and narrator Nick Carraway’s Finnish cleaning woman is played by a secretary). Looking at the relative inactivity of the employees, this is an office where nearly no work gets done.
The acting is terrific overall. Standout personalities include swaggering Tom Buchanan (Robert Cucuzza), squirmy Owl-Eyes/Chester (Vin Knight), creepy Klipspringer/Ewing (Mike Iveson) [who also perfectly pantomimes playing the piano as music plays], lusty and whiny Myrtle (Laurena Allan), and a beautifully understated Jordan Baker (Susie Sokol). Jim Fletcher’s deadpan delivery of Gatsby’s lines may have been a stylistic choice, perhaps to refrain from attaching too much sentiment or emotion to the performance so that audiences could add inflections of their own, but I often could not get past the monotonous vocalization. He seemed like a subdued Ed Harris. I wish he said every line with the same witty energy he showed when he said “little Montenegro.” Similarly, while Daisy is a hard character to play—a bit ditsy and foolish but instantaneously charming—Tory Vazquez’s performance was often flat and seemed amateurish. She carried no real presence during the first half of the play. Again, perhaps this was a stylistic choice or perhaps this is my poor reading of her acting.
To save the best two for last: Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, the narrator, and Ben Williams as Michaelis, several other bit characters, and the sound operator/designer. Shepherd’s performance is luminous, an awing feat of memorization, endurance, and colossal vitality. The audience really likes him from the get go, identifies with him, and roots for him to complete the book as we look to complete it ourselves. Without his bedrock talent, this play would not work. Ben Williams is wonderfully delightful as a master of all trades: a brilliant comic actor, deft dramatic persona, and skilled sound man. His performance is also one of stamina: like Shepherd, he is on stage for the entire play, managing the sound cues from his office desk and performing several limited roles with verve and personality. While Shepherd’s large role must hold the show together, it is Williams who makes the details run smoothly.
The set is magnificent. To the right, many musty cardboard boxes are stacked on racks, framing exits for the actors. To the rear left, an inner office window looks into the main work area, a convenient spot for the secretary and for Gatsby to look out towards the Buchanan residence across the bay. On the left sits a desk with an employee manning the sound design, showing viewers the nuts and bolts of the play, even as he takes on several acting roles. In the rear center, a large rectangular window allows us to see people coming and going, and is a spot mined for comedic effect as characters do pratfalls and stare into the audience. At the center of the stage is one long desk, at which the narrator and the man who plays Gatsby sit—facing each other across their workspace, the narrator with his broken computer and Gatsby with his typewriter. The gray walls, wood paneling, and fluorescent lights help create the fetid office atmosphere. I wondered where the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg were.
The sound design was at times clever and at times distracting. On one hand, city noises, sounds of cars beeping or whirring by, and appropriate crashing sounds helped create an effect of urbanity and modernity. On the other hand, canned sounds of golf swings and bird chirping created needless white noise for the actors to overcome. The jazz music helped set the scene of the twenties, but at times it was unnecessarily loud and detracted from the acting.
The lighting design should win awards. Mark Barton’s work transforms this stuffy little office into a mansion’s sprawling gardens, a sweltering hotel suite, a mechanic’s garage and gas station, the living room of a modest home on the bay. Through dimming lights, changing angles, and other strategies, Barton’s work effectively makes the office seem like multiple locations, keeping audiences engrossed in the story as the office setting becomes the settings of the novel. It is a subtle trick and it is executed beautifully.
The blue lighting towards the end of the play parallels the blue melancholy of Gatsby’s final hours, and the twilight of the production. By this time, the central desk has been cleared of everything but the novel itself, no office clutter remains to obscure the world of the novel. Shepherd, as Nick Carraway, addresses the audience directly, no longer reading from the book. As Shepherd recites the final paragraphs, he eases into a Southern/Western accent, perhaps a bit Carolinian, reflecting the rural Midwestern roots of the play’s protagonist and narrator. This is a charming choice.
The play promotes literacy, perhaps indirectly, since so many characters in the office and in the novel are reading during the performance. Magazines and newspapers clutter the office, and actors are always picking them up, thumbing through them, reading them. Jordan Baker reads a golf magazine, Tom Buchanan is reading a magazine when he starts talking to the narrator about mixing races, and the Gatsby office worker character reads the newspaper (as Gatsby does in the novel, searching for Daisy in the Chicago news).
It may be too obvious for me to say that this play demonstrates the power of reading and the power of theatre. Here we have a world transformed through a man reading a book, as he is himself transformed. We literally witness a man identifying with and becoming a character, and an audience identifying with a character and an immensely talented actor. Theatre is transformed through this groundbreaking work, and the book is transformed through its performance. And, of course, we are transformed, in turn, by the power of the novel and the virtuosity of Elevator Repair Service’s accomplishment. After experiencing this achievement, I doubt viewers will experience the novel, reading, theatre, and perhaps—for some—life itself the same.
Posted by Dusty Hoesly