The Guthrie’s first production on its new thrust stage, Simon Levy’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” moves the theater into the future while casting a look back into the local past via F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul roots. While the show lacks little in ambition and production value, it’s an uneven work that offers mere glimpses of immediacy amid stretches that skip across the narrative’s surface like a stone tossed across the Long Island waters around which it revolves.
Levy’s adaptation wisely anchors itself around the first-person account of narrator Nick Carraway (Matthew Amendt). Amendt frequently steps out of the action into a spotlight, where he ably handles Fitzgerald’s forlorn prose and a story arc that sees young Nick dazzled by the wealthy East Coast milieu — and then reduced to a quaking voice when his illusions are smashed to pieces.
The women in the production also inhabit their roles with a dynamic sense of purpose. Unflappable flapper Jordan Baker (Cheyenne Casebier) comes across with appropriate brittle charm, and Casebier’s angular features under the lights are as near to her character’s literary depiction as one could hope. Feckless linchpin Daisy (Heidi Armbruster) is full of loony momentary enthusiasms and a dangerous sensuality, though by the second act, Armbruster’s perf veers toward hollow mannerisms. (To be fair, Fitzgerald’s character has some stilted moments.)
Under David Esbjornson’s direction, the cast offers tantalizing moments of cohesion and a sense that this dense, extraordinarily complex story is going to fully come to life. Erik Heger’s scenes as clueless jock Tom Buchanan, in particular, nicely capture the self-absorption and callousness that Fitzgerald’s novel took such great pains to decry.
And there are instances of shocking angularity, particularly revolving around the violence of the second act, that lead one to believe this show is working hard to make the most of material that will always breathe more heartily on the page than on the stage.
Still, nagging doubts persist. Amid a sweeping lighting design and excellent costumes, the party and dance scenes are unaccountably lifeless and perfunctory, exhibiting none of the glamour and sheen that’s supposed to sweep away young Nick.
Gatsby himself is played by Lorenzo Pisoni, who does not carry the weight his character requires, creating a weakness at the center of the show. Pisoni carves out a perf of appealing likability and even guilelessness, particularly when Gatsby’s naive monomania takes over in the second act. More crucially, however, he fails to provide the command and mystery in the first act that we need in order to fully feel the emotional impact of seeing the would-be tycoon’s surfaces eventually pierced.
The title role of this work requires a depiction that commands attention from the onset, and Pisoni seems outmatched by the task.
By the end, we’ve seen fleeting glances of a potentially fine staging, with ultimately mixed results. There is an undeniable chemistry at work here that’s laudable in adapting a work in which people largely stand (or sit) around and talk to one another.
Amendt finally carries the work to a satisfying conclusion, given what has come before, his final turn in the spotlight both affecting and delivered with convincing gravity.
Ultimately, though, it feels as though an interesting exercise has been completed with less than satisfying results.