Stage Marathon: Is Seven Hours of The Great Gatsby Too Much?

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Joan Marcus

Elevator Repair Company's production of Gatz at the Public Theater in New York.

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But by the time Shepherd reads those words, a change has taken place on stage. His narration — at first so halting and unsure — has become warm and rich, a storyteller's voice. Shepherd assumes the narration and Carraway's dialogue, but gradually the other workers at the office take on the roles from the book — the woman in golf pants (Susie Sokol) becomes jaunty Jordan Baker, the maintenance man (Gary Wilmes) becomes a suitably brutish Tom Buchanan and the balding, granite-faced boss (Jim Fletcher) becomes an unlikely Gatsby, alternately tragic and menacing, wholly lacking any sort of golden glow. Helped by some excellent sound design (by Ben Williams) that evokes the urban bustle of flapper-era New York and the natural hum of still rural Long Island, the world of the novel bleeds into the office, and finally replaces it altogether. It's a tribute to the inventiveness of director John Collins and the energy of his cast of 13 that a few glasses and a bottle or two of whiskey can create one of Gatsby's fantastic West Egg parties.

As the book's remarkably lean plot unfolds — Gatsby finding his Daisy and losing her, discovering it's not so easy, or advisable, to repeat the idealized past — audience concentration waxes and wanes, just as it might when reading even a great novel. But when released for a dinner break halfway through I stumbled out into a crisp November night in a partial daze, ears still ringing with Fitzgerald's words. This was indeed a marathon but I was lucky — I never hit the wall, though others did, and I saw a few empty seats by Acts III and IV. No surprise there — any work this ambitious and long will be polarizing. Either you love it or you probably went home.

And I loved Gatz, probably because I love The Great Gatsby — a love I'd put aside as slightly embarrassing, like a high-school crush, until this play brought it back. Not that the novel is revealed here as perfect; hearing every word of Gatsby read aloud reminded me of just how silly this book could be, by a writer who up to his too-early death at 44 never seemed to quite grow up, just like his Gatsby. The novel is set in 1922 and both Gatsby and Nick are veterans of the war (unlike Fitzgerald, who never made it to France, a failing he was acutely aware of), but you wouldn't know it — no echoes of the trenches here. At a time when Hemingway and Eliot and Woolf and Joyce were remaking literature from the ground up, Fitzgerald was writing his old-fashioned stories in an old-fashioned way. Religion, business, politics, race, war — just about everything that makes America American — is absent here. The Great Gatsby as the great American novel? Only if there's a special category for Best Parties.

Yet The Great Gatsby endures, and not just in high school libraries (if they even still exist). It endures because its language is enchanting, and that enchantment draws its power from the deep wells of feeling Fitzgerald possessed, palpable on the page, palpable even in a dingy ofice. By the last act, as Nick narrates Gatsby's murder and worse, the death of his dream, Shepherd puts the text away and recites from heart, finally ending with those lines that retain their freshness no matter how often they're read: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." But as the curtain closed and the tired audience cheered — having crossed its finish line — I was thinking of another line, by Hemingway about Fitzgerald: "His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings." And like a butterfly wing, that talent was fragile; it would soon be marred, then lost and unrecoverable. Gatz may be a marathon, but Fitzgerald was definitely a sprinter; the tragedy beneath the tragedy in Gatsby is that its author would never write so perfectly again.

But then, who would? What Gatz did, through all its hours, was leave me convinced that Gatsby really is the great American novel — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that.

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