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Understatement and Awe
By Jonathan Kalb

By Elevator Repair Service
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Box office: 212-539-8500


Gatz is a work of quiet and sustained brilliance--a surprisingly soulful feat of artistic understatement that happens to be seven hours long. It's also the most probing and resonant piece the experimental company Elevator Repair Service has done to date.

A nondescript office dogsbody, played by Scott Shepherd, arrives one morning at his manifestly dead-end job, can't get his computer booted, and picks up a well-thumbed paperback of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. He begins reading aloud, badly, gradually improves, and then slowly grows interested and skillfully animated. At some point impossible to pinpoint, this man's equally nondescript co-workers stop giving him funny looks and instead begin pitching in to help enact and narrate the story--which is to say, the whole story, including every one of its 47,000 words. These co-workers begin to take on specific qualities, but none ever ceases to be an office drone. Their enactments remain rough and unpretentious, their impersonations always approximate and incomplete, and that pervasive quality of DIY humility turns out to be crucial to the production's intense emotional punch.

On one level, Gatz is a tribute to the pleasure of reading--a blessedly unfashionable cause in this age of epidemic attention-deficit and mass isolation behind flickering screens. Yet countless earnest avant-gardists have tried and failed before to translate into stage terms their pleasure in reading nondramatic texts (usually difficult ones). ERS, impressively, has found a rare formula that works theatrically. The gambit of Gatz succeeds because of its amusing and interesting narrative technique (of which more in a moment) and also because of its choice of material. Gatsby is not a difficult book, so one can listen to it with relative ease. More important, its central theme is the dream of American self-invention, that perennial, optimistic conviction we New Worlders harbor that, with a little pluck and luck, we can do anything, become anything, because we're liberated from the shackles of rank and class-prejudice that doomed our European predecessors to gloom and stasis. Of course, Fitzgerald saw the holes in that notion, recognized the rigid lines of reinvented privilege and class that arose in the great new democracy. That's the main agon in his book, no less pertinent today than when it appeared in 1925.

ERS's key perception was that that agon, and the dream animating it, are still ferociously active in the American imagination. Millions of bored office workers still go to work every day in the info age certain they're better than what they do and fantasize about becoming self-made tycoons like Jay Gatsby, or elegant heiresses like Daisy Buchanan. It's the way Gatz exploits that living reality--the office-worker-as-dreamer turned office-worker-as-actor, with a gentle push--that makes it so touching. There's a huge lode of frustrated emotion beneath the office circumstance that the show cleverly taps. (And I might add that it was the absence of such a lode, due to the absence of such a clear correspondence between the fictional and real worlds, that made ERS's 2008 staging of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury so much less powerful.)

Louisa Thompson's grimy and cluttered office set, conveniently supplied with a flexible sofa and a big hallway window upstage, is the ideal neutral screen for Gatz's play of projected fantasies and frustrations. With only tiny adjustments, accomplished in seconds by the actors, the space easily morphs in our minds into a mansion, a seedy apartment, a greasy garage, and much more, with the window providing splendidly droll fishbowl effects. The ERS cast members, moreover, command a similar swift and efficient transformative fluidity, because they too are marvelously neutral screens onto which we can freely project all the personalities and images suggested by Fitzgerald's seductively matter-of-fact words.

Interestingly, if the cast were any more exact or elaborate in their enactments, they would be ridiculous or dull. It's because they convince us that they are run-of-the-mill, distracted dreamers, like us, that they are moving. One New York reviewer expressed disappointment--incomprehensible to me--in the actor Jim Fletcher's portrayal of Gatsby. "Who, ultimately, could satisfyingly incarnate Gatsby, in any literal way?" said the critic. "Robert Redford sure couldn't in the 1974 film version." But that's exactly the point. In the theater, bless its humble soul, there can be other priorities than realistic incarnation, and for years Fletcher's usefulness to avant-garde theater groups like ERS, the New York City Players, and Forced Entertainment has been that he is an ideal cipher. Tall, bald, deep-voiced, slow-tongued, relentlessly deadpan, he projects enormous strength and vigor along with a hilariously strange and unflappable vagueness and centerlessless. Just like Gatsby.

Gatz is an extraordinary creation, not to be missed. Yes, it is long, but as with all exceptional works of marathon theater, its hours pass in exhilaration and awe.


Photos by Joan Marcus.


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