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Is the 8-Hour Show Based On "The Great Gatsby" Worth The Time?

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It's one of theatre's little ironies that while plenty of two-hour shows feel too long, the genuinely long shows seem to zip by. My theory on this is that when a writer or company has put that much effort into something to create a truly expansive experience, the result is often something quite special. I know that the full-day marathon performances of The Kentucky Cycle and Angels in America remain two of my most memorable theatrical events.

This leads us to Gatz, the much-heralded production by New York-based company Elevator Repair Service, an approximately eight-hour presentation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby. It's a commendable experiment, with every word of the book narrated or performed in character, the kind of audaciously big theatre that one rarely sees anymore. The ensemble is terrific, the direction provides some amazing set pieces, and it left me with a new appreciation of the novel. Which is why it genuinely pains me to say that as much as I wanted to, I liked but didn't love it.

The story takes place in 1922 Long Island, where Nick (Scott Shepherd) rents a modest house. He becomes friends with his rich and mysterious next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), whose overpopulated parties are near-constant. Nick stays in touch with his cousin Daisy (Victoria Vazquez) and her boorish husband Tom (Robert Cucuzza), and is dismayed when Tom introduces him to his mistress, Myrtle (Laurena Allan). Gatsby, it turns out, would like Nick to arrange a meeting with Daisy to rekindle an old romance, but regardless of his dreams and plans, things don't go as he'd hoped.

Shepherd has achieved one herculean feat in memorizing the entire novel and adds yet another by performing onstage for the entirety of the show. Beyond that, he plays Nick with a wry kindness, a narrator who may be exasperated with the rich and heedless folk he's surrounded by, but who is finally more sympathetic than judgmental. Fletcher is excellent as Gatsby, affecting as a man trying so desperately to live up to his grandiose dreams and ultimately failing. He excels at the deadpan persona Gatsby is playing, moving across the stage with a sort of numb grace, which at certain moments slips to reveal a reservoir of menace within. Cucuzza is stunningly good and darkly funny as the serenely selfish Tom, and his confrontation scene with Gatsby is an impressive dramatic highlight.

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Vazquez is fine if not entirely convincing as Daisy, but she expertly nails the scene where she needs to choose between her two men. Susie Sokol brings wit and vivacity to her performance as tennis pro Jordan, and Allan is brash perfection as the doomed Myrtle. Frank Boyd delivers a properly haunted pathos to the cuckolded George, and Mike Iveson is hilarious delivering a song as a pianist who really makes it clear he doesn't want to play. The rest of the ensemble, including Kate Scelsa, Kristen Sieh, Greig Sargeant, Ben Williams and Ross Fletcher, perform multiple roles with notable skill.

John Collins' direction is full of small clever touches, such as the way an actor might glare at the narrator when what he's saying doesn't match up with what we're seeing, or the single tire rolling by after a massive car accident. It's the set pieces that really remain in my mind, however, from the wild party sequence or the aforementioned crash sequence, where all the theatrical elements pull together into a thrilling whole. Ben Williams' sound design and Mark Barton's lighting design are superb, evoking a myriad of settings and bringing the story to dreamlike life. I don't know whose idea it was to set the entire show in a dingy office and have the actors play workers who are sliding in and out of Gatsby roles as they go about their work day, but I think this concept adds nothing to the production. Far better that they'd just done Gatsby in an appropriate set or even with no set at all.

This concept is a needless distraction that slows things down. And this is not a play that needs slowing down (the day I saw it, it ran 8.5 hours). I understand that the show is very specifically reproducing the entire novel, and I applaud it as an experiment, but I think it's an experiment that isn't a complete success. It's a marathon show where I definitely felt the time pass, and I think it could be edited considerably. Not as a novel, mind you, but as a piece of physical theatre that an audience is sitting through, I thought this was a mostly impressive show that nevertheless didn't entirely merit eight and a half hours of my time.

"Gatz" plays at REDCAT through Dec. 9. Tickets are available online.