The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel, is about an enterprising young Midwesterner named James Gatz who fashions himself as an Eastern society Jay. Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s enterprising stage adaptation fashioned from a verbatim reading of the novel, is about…six hours.
If you’re raising an eyebrow at the thought of the marathon experience coming to On the Boards, “Well, that’s the right response,” laughs director John Collins. “That’s part of the fun of this.” He and his New York theater company do assume that any crowd willing to sit for the entire book knows at least something about what it’s in for. “That kind of contract takes a little bit of responsibility away from us,” says Collins. “You’re not just in our hands—you’re in Fitzgerald’s hands. It’s not a matter of indulgence on our part. It’s commitment. This show is only as long as it has to be.”
Elevator Repair Service has found fresh ways to blend theater with singular texts since the early ’90s, when its Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad envisioned surrealist Salvador Dalí’s lost 1937 screenplay for the Marx Brothers (a multi-limbed Groucho, a barbed-wire harp for Harpo). Gatz promises similar playfulness of staging combined with a reverence for Fitzgerald’s language. Advance publicity mentions comedian Andy Kaufman’s notorious Gatsby stunts—he was said to do entire standup gigs that consisted of nothing but a recitation of the book—but Gatz is meant as an imaginative expansion and not a comic irritation.
Once ERS decided that Fitzgerald’s story of American excess seemed relevant again, they also decided they wouldn’t mess with rewriting it. Early rehearsals in a crowded office space inspired the core conceit: An employee (actor Scott Shepherd) waiting for his PC to boot up in a drab modern workplace opens the novel and begins to read aloud. Coworkers enter and the story begins to weave its way into their world; a boozy night of Gatsby revelry, for instance, becomes a wild office party in Gatz, employees tossing off lines of book dialogue while the engrossed Shepherd adds the necessary “he said’s.”
“The story of the book, and of this country, is all about transforming yourself,” says Collins. “And in our story someone transforms his surroundings.”
Such an unusual treatment has a distinct benefit. Gatsby is meant to share the maturing impressions of a subjective narrator, the lack of which has hobbled film versions and last November’s elegant but ultimately hollow adaptation by playwright Simon Levy at the Seattle Rep (though the Fitzgerald estate now forbids Gatz from being produced anywhere its more lavish stage competition might show up). As for the length, well, Collins swears “you resist it at first, but when you get past that, people really start to perceive the passage of time in a different way. And that also has to do with the knowledge that they know the book has an ending. I mean, you can start to look at your watch in a bad piece of theater and never know when you’re going to get out.” And you will get out for two short intermissions and an hour for dinner.
“We’ve actually had people complain that there are too many breaks,” Collins notes with some amusement. “This is what people say after they’ve seen it.”