Jim Fletcher, Scott Shepherd (Joan Marcus)
How It’s New York:  Not only is Gatz performed at the Public Theater, Joe Papp’s vision of a theater that would bring Shakespeare to the people along with bold new works. Elevator Repair Service is a Brooklyn based collective.

How It’s Irish:  F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, was Irish American, and the book’s roots in Irish dreams have never been clearer or more painfully realized.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I spent much of Gatz weeping quietly. At one point I worried I was about to break out in sobs. Certainly I was whimpering audibly. It’s important to put this upfront.

I didn’t “admire” the 6.5 hour marathon theatrical reading/presentation by Elevator Repair Service  at the Public Theater of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.

Naturally, one admires the accomplishment, the invention, the way they set it in a depressing office beginning with a bored office worker waiting for his computer to reboot reading aloud.  And this is all worth describing, but the main thing to understand about Gatz is that it takes Fitzgerald’s gorgeous prose and inhabits it in front of you.

To call it “powerful” isn’t strong enough. Wrenching, cathartic, enlightening, unbearable, magnificent. Any of those would do. 

This production by Elevator Repair Service, who are known for melding word for word readings with theatre, is a second outing here.  It had an earlier outing at the Public in 2010. This incarnation runs only through May 13 (extended from May 6).  It’s really two plays, with intermissions and a dinner break, on the same day.

 Movies and dramatizations of his story about Jay Gatsby, aka Jim Gatz, a Midwesterner posing as a man inherited money, who yearns for his love Daisy even as he conducts some sort of shady business, usually fail.

What makes the story so powerful isn’t just the story.  It’s a good story, and in many ways is the quintessential  story of American ambition, innocence and
love, but its actions-even its more sensational ones, as when Daisy’s husband breaks the nose of his mistress – aren’t what make the novel great.

Narrator Nick Caraway witnesses the thwarted love of a young man for a somewhat shallow and mercenary woman, and how innocence is corrupted by the material world – that’s what we see.
Robert Redford played Gatsby in the 1974 film.  Quick, who played Nick? (Sam Waterston, for what it’s worth).

Scott Shepherd and Victoria Vazquez  (Joan Marcus)

But Nick is more than a guide. He’s a conscience, a fully realized character, he’s a bard.
His reticence, his refusal to judge too harshly – something he warns us of in the novel’s first sentence – are heroic. What he sees in Gatsby, we see.  When he shouts, near the end, “you’re worth the whole lot of them,” you know it’s completely true.

The man next to me was rubbing his eyes as well.
Nick is clearly the starring role in Gatz.
Scott Shepherd is in every scene, reading, describing and finally, flipping through the book and just acting.He’s fair-haired, Midwestern sounding, fundamentally decent.

If you read the book in high school, or have only seen one of the movies, you must see Gatz to understand why Fitzgerald’s work truly is the Great American Novel.

It’s also hauntingly Irish. Fitzgerald was brought up Irish Catholic, with a grandparent from the old country.

He was ambivalent about his Irishness, sometimes claiming it and other times rejecting it.
He died at 44, of a heart attack brought on by alcoholism.

If “An Irishman’s heart is nothing but his imagination,” as George Bernard Shaw wrote, Jay Gatsby is the quintessential Irishman.
He’s entirely self-invented.

His love for Daisy and his desire to reclaim the past are also convictions of the imagination, so strong he almost makes them true.

If Irish love, as Shaw suggests in John Bull’s Other Island, is based in yearning, again, what could be more Irish than the yearning of a man who gazes at a green light across the bay because it’s the light on the dock of his beloved, who reads a Chicago paper every day for five years in hopes of seeing his beloved’s name in it
Here’s Nick on Gatsby’s reunion with Daisy:

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

No actor could ever capture the richness of this observation. It has to be heard.
Hearing it while also seeing it is what makes Gatz so terrible and so wonderful.

Gatsby’s Irish dreaming here is also married to the American dream of success. They mesh badly.

One or the other could gain happiness; together they are doomed.
It’s Gatsby’s heart that makes us love him.
It’s his heart that inevitably ruins him.

Annie McNamara and Kate Scelsa (Joan Marcus)

Gatsby’s faith in the past is also Irish, his decision that he could reclaim it by dreaming it fully.

The setting for the play is a tawdry office, with dull metal furniture, file cabinets, old wood paneling outside.  As Nick reads aloud to pass the time, gradually office workers begin entering in to the story too.  It sounds hokey but is done seamlessly, and the premise soon ceases to matter at all.
It’s intensely theatrical – there are no period costumes a la Downton Abbey, though Colleen Werthmann’s modern dress is suggestive.

Jordan Baker, a socialite whom Nick dates for awhile, is played by Susie Sokol – a petite girl in a polo shirt.

Jim Fletcher, Victoria Vazquez and Scott Shepherd (Joan Marcu

An imposing but balding office manager, Jim Fletcher, is our handsome Jay Gatsby.

He, like Gatsby, wears a pink suit in the second half.

We don’t even meet Gatsby for the whole of the first hour.  We hear about him, though, a wealthy man in West Egg who throws enormous parties. Nick, a young bondsman and World War I veteran, is a cousin of Daisy Buchanan, so we do meet Daisy (Victoria Vazquez) and her rather brutish husband Tom (Gary Wilmes), who was at Yale with Nick.

We go to New York with Nick and Tom and Tom’s vulgar but vital mistress Myrtle (Laurena Allan), where 20’s music plays and as the party gets wilder, people throw stacks of paper in the air.

Seeing office papers go flying around captures a debauched bacchanalia perfectly – there’s an awful shock in it.

For the first half, you’ll notice how funny it always is to see an actor trying to be what the prose says he is – haughty, or expectant, etc.  It was funny when the Neo-Futurists did it in 2011 with “Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill,” and it’s amusing here too.  But that’s just the first half.  You’ll be fully in the story by the second hour, as will the office workers turned characters.

The sound design by Ben Williams includes period and contemporary music as well as effects and invents a whole word in front of us.  Williams, sitting at a soundboard onstage, also plays Michaelis, and enters into the action in other ways from time to time.

John Collins’ direction is fast and precise.

There are a few times the energy flags – a long scene that begins the second half serves the text, but is hard on the audience, who have just come from dinner. But overall the hours fly by.

It’s masterfully done. And you do hear every word, every insight, every detail. Ross Fletcher has an incisive scene as Henry C. Gatz, Gatsby’s father, who shows up for Gatsby’s funeral. He’s found Gatsby’s schedule, inscribed in an old copy of Hopalong Cassidy, which included things like “practice elocution, poise and how to attain it” and “Read one improving book or magazine per week” and “be better to parents.” 

Even writing it brings a lump to my throat.

Fitzgerald’s compassion for his flawed, ambitious dreamer, and even for those who trample on those dreams, has never been so palpable, nor so compelling.

GATZ runs through May 13 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. 212-967-7555. It is presented as a marthon theatrical event, with two intermissions and a dinner break, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 3, Sundays at 2.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.