Critique of the Week

Just a smart, thoughtful review of a difficult and challenging piece of theater. Myron is getting shit done over there at THR.

Myron Meisel – The Hollywood Reporter

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel is read in its entirety over more than six hours in this bravura theatrical engagement with the source material onstage in downtown L.A.

Everyone can agree on how beautifully written F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 novel The Great Gatsby is, and New York company Elevator Repair Service has appropriated the text first to desecrate and finally to honor that beauty. For 6 1/2 hours, with two intermissions and a truncated dinner break, Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway purveys the narrative, mostly handing off the dialogue of other characters to other actors, underscoring more keenly than reading the book does that it is, in fact, a monologue by the complex yet cripplingly limited observer Carraway.

The show originally was mounted in 2006 in Brussels and then in 23 venues worldwide before rights problems were resolved allowing it to open in Manhattan, London and finally, here in Los Angeles. This acclaimed production initially locates the action in a mid-1980s office replete with archaic technology machines that prompt lame business and stale jokes, as a worker drone picks up Fitzgerald’s volume and begins to recite. (Anachronistically, sound designer Ben Williams, who also assays a few roles, works his mixing board and laptop conspicuously stage right.) Indeed, for most of the first act, the company appears to be fighting against the action of the text, undercutting any semblance of illustrating it. The resulting meta-moments aren’t terribly inspired, and their alienation tends to mock the occasionally earnest fruitiness of the prose and certainly undermines its lyrical qualities.

Yet still, the text triumphs. Previous stage and movie versions (the latest, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, opens next year) have foundered on the inescapable truth that Fitzgerald’s literary achievement is fundamentally not dramatically structured. Restoring Carraway’s omniscience and foregoing plot beats allows the piece to become stageworthy. Perhaps the pretentious and clumsy gambits help allow the muskiness to clear so as they gradually recede over the course of the day’s performance, the purity of the narrative emerges more credibly, though this viewer remains skeptical.

Nevertheless, the first truly electrifying scene takes place clearly outside the establishing setting, in a shocking, drunken party in Tom Buchanan’s love nest with mistress Myrtle Wilson (Robert Cucuzza and Laurena Allan). The smirking irony softens, and as it becomes more occasional, its commentary grows more trenchant. After the dinner break, though Fitzgerald does not animate his action with a screenwriter’s skill, the stripped-down elementals home in closer on the catharsis. The studied eccentricity of casting and performance (spiritually descended from the anti-naturalistic style of FEKS — Factory of Eccentric Actors — that opposed the Stanislavski tradition) ripens into a transparent vessel of emotion less expressed than conveyed.

Given the difficulties with evenness of tone, the players acquit themselves admirably. The Gatsby of Jim Fletcher might not aspire to a coherent incarnation but operates instead like a tuning fork homing in with precision to accurately strike each note. Women do not fare well under Fitzgerald’s gaze by recently established standards (nor, in passing, do African-Americans or Jews), but they all boast moments of indelible individuality. And above all, the protean ministrations of Shepherd as he deftly morphs from observant narrator to implicated character and back again creates a model for this novel production’s primary point: the interdependency of the active and passive voice, our double (and often duplicitous) roles as alternating witnesses and participants in the frequently confounding gauntlets, moral and affectional, to which we must all regularly submit.

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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  1. Brian says:

    This is an interesting review. I disagree with some points, but I understand how he got to them. His comment on the first act has me thinking how the sheer volume of text in this “play” allows for the sort of slow boil which gives the company room to play and tease the audience before completely succumbing to the narrative. It’s a lot like commenting on an episode of a TV show. When taken as it’s own thing and not judged as a part of a larger piece, it can be viewed as less than. My wife and I used to argue about The Sopranos in that way. We’d watch an episode and she’d say “that sucked” and I’d respond with “but it could end up being crucial to the overall narrative of the series.” We’re nerds.

    I also found it interesting when he wrote the production ran into rights issues once it was going to NYC. Funny how that works. There aren’t rights issues until it gets to the Big City.