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.

November 7 was marathon day in New York City, and I took part. But you wouldn't have found me among the more than 40,000 runners huddled in the cold morning light of Staten Island, waiting for the start of the 41st New York Marathon. I prefer endurance tests of a theatrical nature, and this fall New York offered a cultural challenge that makes just running around the city seem as tough as Sunday brunch. After all, most New York marathoners will finish the five-borough, 26.2 mi circuit in under five hours. But if you want to see the Public Theater's presentation of the play Gatz — a dramatic reading of all 49,000 words in The Great Gatsby, each "he said" and "she laughed" included — you need to set aside more than eight hours for four acts split by two intermissions and a 75-minute dinner break. For those keeping score that's enough time for this year's marathon champion, Ethiopia's Gebre Gebrmariam, to run his race nearly four times over.

I'll admit, Gatz was a personal test. Just how serious about theater was I? (I don't think I was alone in that reasoning — despite the daunting length and $140 ticket prices for what is, in the end, an actor reading from a book, Gatz has all but sold out at the Public.) And in lesser hands, that's all Gatz might have been: a forgettable novelty, a merit badge for veteran theatergoers. But the Elevator Repair Service —an experimental theater group that has frequently adapted literary works for the stage and which has worked on Gatz for over a decade — has created something that lingers in the mind long after the leg cramps from all that sitting have subsided. Gatz dramatizes the narrative spell cast by a beloved novel, giving life on stage to what plays out in the mind of the reader. And in doing so it rescues F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American work from the high school canon, making it new again.

Like any marathon, though, it can take some time at the start to ease into the pace. The set — the only set, though used ingeniously — is a dumpy, dingy office, with ripped sofas bleeding fabric, rows of hard metal file boxes and one very balky computer. It's that failure of tech support that begins the narrative — a man (Scott Shepherd), in the uniform of an office drone, can't get his computer to start. Waiting for tech support, Shepherd roots around his desk and finds a battered paperback copy of The Great Gatsby hiding in an empty Rolodex. For no obvious purpose, he begins to read, out loud, beginning with the beginning. Shepherd won't put the book down for another eight hours.

At first his pace is hesitant, tripping over the sentences, just as anyone might if they were reading fresh words out loud for the first time, especially if you're grappling with Fitzgerald's baroque narration. As the reading continues, other office workers enter the stage — a nervy secretary in golfing pants, a swaggering maintenance man, a delicate secretary in pearls — sometimes reacting, sometimes not, to the oddity of Shepherd's reading Gatsby in the middle of the workday. Silent comedy ensues — the only lines spoken onstage come directly from the novel —with the production in the office playing off the events of the novel. A phone call in the novel is a phone call in the office. The green light that calls to Jay Gatsby from Daisy Buchanan's dock is here an LED motion sensor on the office wall, glimpsed for a moment.

If you're going to perform a dramatized reading of The Great Gatsby — one of the lushest novels in American literature, down to the thick green carpet of Gatsby's Long Island lawn — why set it in a modern, lifeless office? Probably for the same reason the Elevator Repair Service called their play "Gatz," the real surname of Fitzgerald's central character before his self-willed transformation into Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is after all of a novel of dreams, how dreams can grow from the unlikeliest soil, remain alive even when they should have long died, and exact a terrible cost on the dreamer.

Setting the play in an office so dreary it seems fit only for workplace homicide grounds Fitzgerald's endlessly romantic narration in the ordinary, where the only escape is a daydream or a novel. And the company draws that contrast again and again, reinforcing the humor in this book that is funnier than I remember — even if the comedy isn't always intentional. At one point Shepherd comes across a phrase about Gatsby: "He was a son of God —a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that." He pauses, reads it silently again, then just throws up his hands and continues, drawing the biggest laugh of the night. Sometimes Fitzgerald's sense ran ahead of his sensibility.

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