With a show by Elevator Repair Service, auds are in for the long haul. After a word-for-word adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” (retitled “Gatz”) that lasted seven hours, and a staging of a single chapter of “The Sound and the Fury” that ran 2 1/2 hours, the Gotham company has extracted all the dialogue and much of the first-person narration from Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel in a production that nudges toward the four-hour mark. Helmer John Collins, in a world preem for the Edinburgh Intl. Festival, takes a subdued approach that demands much of the aud’s concentration in the early chapters but, with some bursts of invention, rewards the effort by the end.
At the center of it all is Mike Iveson, whose Herculean performance as Jake Barnes is a work of effortless charisma. Onstage throughout, he plays an American foreign correspondent in Paris whose occasional dispatches home are a mere diversion from the serious business of excessive drinking and running with a pack of wealthy and decadent expats. With his open collar and laidback charm, he captures perfectly Hemingway’s vision of a man who is wry, wise and hard-boiled yet, thanks to his war-inflicted impotence, destined never to fulfill his natural calling as the romantic lead.
That leaves the field clear for Lady Brett Ashley, an impulsive British aristocrat whose reckless love of men is matched only by her appetite for drink. Played by a suitably striking Lucy Taylor, with papery skin and a shock of brushed-back, boyish blond hair, she is Barnes’ emotional and intellectual equal, a fellow player in the game of life. For reasons left unstated, however, she knows theirs is an impossible love even though it is the one constant in her turbulent romantic life.
As helmer, Collins finds a unifying symbol in the novel’s vast consumption of alcohol and sets the action in a Parisian cafe with an endless row of empty bottles sitting above the wood-effect Formica panels. The actors gather around two large tables, strewn with glasses that appear to be filled and smashed courtesy of Matt Tierney and Ben Williams, who provide comical sound effects from behind the bar. It’s thirsty work just watching these dissolute characters consume bottle after bottle on their summer vacation south to Spain and the bullfights of Pamplona.
What is surprising, and disappointing, is how much Collins trusts the story to play itself out with relatively little intervention. The actors are never less than persuasive in their characterizations and Collins makes dynamic use of the stage space, but the production bursts into life only in those infrequent moments when, for example, they all dance to “Les petits boudins,” a catchy piece of hip-wiggling 1960s French pop by Dominique Walter, or when one of them delivers his lines through a microphone like a standup comic or radio sports commentator.
Toward the end, a table turns into a ferocious bull careering around the stage and we see how the hapless male characters have been enduring a kind of ritualistic fight to the death, with Brett as the victorious matador. This is one of the relatively rare times, however, when the production is more than a lucid reading of the book and something with a theatrical sense of purpose of its own.