Elevator Repair Service’s production of “Gatz” currently playing at American Repertory Theater is a challenging but ultimately mundane experience. In this production an office worker suddenly finds a copy of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and begins to read the book aloud, cover to cover. The entire experience takes approximately 7-8 hours if done in one day – including two intermissions and a brief dinner break.
I was eager to see this production because it is a bit of a theater legend. I am a fan of Fitzgerald’s work and Elevator Repair Service has been developing this show for years due to various hurdles created by the Fitzgerald estate. However, now I can’t help but wonder what they’ve been doing with the time.
The highlight of the production is the ability to connect with Fitzgerald’s book in a new way. The star of the show is the depth of the novel. Its humor as well as its commentaries on race, gender, and class are heard as if for the first time. The questions that scholars and students have poured over about the enigma of Jay Gatsby are presented to us again and still not answered. Is he a bootlegger? Or a common con man? How deep are his ties to organized crime? Is he a murderer? Did he go to Oxford? If so, did he leave Oxford because of poor grades or to find Daisy? I even found myself considering some of the more radical theories that have been posed. Could he possibly be either Jewish or Black and ‘passing’? Was that a homosexual undertone?
As with most great works, the novel allows the reader to enter in with their own individual point of view and feel as if Fitzgerald wrote it from a similar perspective. You are reminded why this is one of the great American novels. It is about a specific person in a specific time and specific place, yet manages to represent any number of groups within the cultural pluralism of America.
Unfortunately, this same specificity is lacking in the production’s basic concept. The conceit of “the office” is vague and appears to merely exist because the play had to be set somewhere. It is incomplete and bereft of any attention to detail. And, ultimately, this is what prevents the show from transcending into something new and exciting. The audience has no idea what type of company it is, who the characters are that will ultimately inhabit those in the book, what their relationship to each other is, or what they are supposed to be accomplishing while their co-worker interrupts their day with reading aloud. It’s hard to believe these actors have ever actually been in an office environment, let alone worked in one.
The press description of the show is misleading – “At first his coworkers hardly notice. But after a series of strange coincidences, it’s no longer clear whether he’s reading the book or the book is doing something to him.” There are no coincidences because no one in the office seems to have reason to enter the space except to be available to deliver their lines or to move props. What office in modern America employs multiple people yet only has one non-functional computer, one phone, and a typewriter?
Eventually, it seems that even the director determined the office setting to be totally irrelevant and we are left with the impression that it’s really just a group of actors who have found a makeshift rehearsal space and are using the props on hand. Actually…that concept might be more satisfying.
A glimmer of how the production could possibly work if fully realized is experienced at the beginning of Chapter 4 as Nick lists out the names of families who attended Gatsby’s parties. While this is being read, office workers are preparing a mass mailing – alluding to party invitations. Letters are signed, folded, stuffed into envelopes, and sorted. The staging is sloppy and the tasks are done without any sort of dedication to the moment, but it did illustrate how the office environment concept could support the text if time were taken to flesh it out.
Throughout the 6 hours of performance only two truly dramatic moments stand out. The first is Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose during the midst of a raucous party – it is so fully in the moment it almost appeared improvised. The second is the utter simplicity of Gatsby and Daisy sitting on a sofa and gazing at each other while Nick describes their first meeting in years. In contrast, Gatsby’s murder (which is arguably the climax of the story) is only shocking due to the volume of the gunshot sound effect.
The actors’ performances are also a mixed bag. Scott Shepherd as Nick, Victoria Vazquez as Daisy, and Gary Wilmes as Tom all have deep and honest connections to the text which bring it to life – others do not. The tragedy of Myrtle’s death is devoid of power due to Aaron Landsman’s detached Wilson and Susie Sokol’s flat readings were entirely off-putting throughout.
Yet, despite these shortcomings, I am glad to have had the experience. Fitzgerald’s book is truly magnificent and I left with a feeling of having reconnected with an old friend. It showed that great art can shine through even when laden with the best intentions of others.
“Gatz” is on view through February 7th at The Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University.
All images are courtesy of the artist and A.R.T.