Much of the pre-show hype swirling around the North American premiere of “Gatz” centered around its daunting seven-hour (with breaks) length; in the days leading up to this Elevator Repair Service performance at the Walker Art Center, the whispers grew thick indeed. Whatever one thought, or hoped, for this staging of the complete text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” anticipatory expectations were wholly exceeded by the show itself, which is a revelatory and exuberant experience.
The action opens with Nick (Scott Shepherd), who arrives wordlessly at a dingy, depressing office space and proceeds with a desultory attempt at getting his PC to boot up so he can begin his presumably drudge-like day. The computer does not cooperate, and while Nick waits he cracks open a worn copy of the novel and begins to read aloud.
Shepherd at first reads in a deadpan voice, tripping over proper names and declaiming Fitzgerald’s prose with leaden yet game unfamiliarity. Thus begins a process of discovery, and the wringing of an unexpected dramatic arc that mirrors the text.
Soon co-workers begin to arrive: Gatsby surrogate Jim (Jim Fletcher, whose gloomy and resigned presence in time subtly plays against Shepherd’s increasing vitality); a Jordan Baker stand-in called the Golf Specialist (Susie Sokol, interjecting a contempo performance sensibility); and an angry, key-jangling building super who morphs into the blunt-force Tom (Robert Cucuzza), the dunderheaded son of privilege from the novel transformed into a character who asserts an even more primal (and humorous) sense of entitlement.
The office-space drama falls away relatively quickly, as the various actors begin to interject lines of dialogue from the novel (Shepherd dutifully adds “he said” and “she explained” as necessary).
The work that emerges walks a tightrope of entertaining effectiveness and outright fun. Tom and Nick’s drunken night with Tom’s mistress (Laurena Allan) and various hangers-on becomes a raucous office party, with Shepherd shouting the narration over the revelry, becoming drunk himself and finally sliding into torpor on the floor.
In the second half of the show (performed in two weeknight halves at the Walker, followed by a pair of marathon all-day perfs over the weekend), Fletcher’s Jim arrives at the office in a gaudy pink suit, although he still reviews papers from a secretary and carries a worse-for-wear weariness. His romance heats up with the Daisy Buchanan character, here called Tom’s Wife (Tory Vazquez, playing Daisy sweet and clueless), and the tragic arc unfolds that leads to Jim’s death.
The fulcrum of the show is Shepherd, whose preparation for this perf can only be imagined. Over the course of the hours he begins haltingly, then traces waves of excitement and disillusionment until the final half-hour or so, when, without breaking his narration, he begins flipping through the pages of the book from which he has been reading. It’s a neat trick, breaking free from the reading-aloud mode, and he delivers the balance of the book from memory with exceeding passion and grace.
Nick’s disillusion following Gatsby’s murder is one of the finest extended passages in the English language, a young man catching the first whiff of age and the destruction of all his particularly American dreams of optimism and flash, and the solid conviction that substance lies beneath them. Shepherd gives as fine a reading of these lines as one could imagine.
But this is theater, after all, not a literature seminar. How fortuitous, then, that ERS does not lose sight of this fact. Perhaps director John Collins’ greatest accomplishment with “Gatz” is the production of a singular tone that balances heaviness, drudgery and tragedy with a commensurate irreverence, satire and levity (not least in Shepherd’s reading of Fitzgerald’s wry one-liners).
The show has yet to be staged in New York because of rights issues with the Fitzgerald estate related to Simon Levy’s recent adaptation of the novel (which, ironically, also opened in Minneapolis, at the new Guthrie). But “Gatz” creates its own dramatic universe. It illuminates a familiar text, breathing strange new life into it while honoring its inherent completeness. One is left not primarily with the expected exhaustion, but with a unique and lasting texture of amusement, insight and possibility.