06 May 2012

Remembering GATZ

I saw the Elevator Repair Service's GATZ two weeks ago today and I've been turning it over in my mind ever since. One thing I've been turning over in my mind is how you will want to read here my friend Katherine's definitive account of watching the play. It really is a fraught moment when Nick (Scott Shepherd) opens that Rolodex, starts reading those familiar words and you think this is happening for the next eight hours. To my ears Shepherd's voice sounded strange, a bit querulous as he labored over the opening paragraphs. By the end, hanging on every word, I realized I'll never be able to read the book again without hearing that inflection.

As a staunch Fitzgeraldian, it surprised me to recall I haven't read The Great Gatsby since I was an undergraduate about eight years ago (Tender Is the Night being my tonic of choice). With the drab office setting of the play all too reminiscent of my career in the intervening years since my last visit with James Gatz, much of the book struck me as more melancholy than I remembered. I'm always keen to notice color and the palette of this production was subdued. Beyond the dingy stage props, much of the novel's action is in a "velvet dusk" with a lavender cab and Daisy's lavender hat and Gatsby's lavender suit (in which he drinks chartreuse). The dissolution of the dog biscuit left all afternoon in a dish of milk. The clouds are made greyer by the ashes blown into them and even Gatsby's gold and silver slippers shuffle through dust.

When I heard "the silver pepper of the stars" I left the play for a moment to recollect the first time I read The Great Gatsby, sitting on a green leather couch. My family's living room got a lot of afternoon light and it was warm that afternoon after school. Now I wouldn't even put the line in the top ten Fitzgerald metaphors but then that silver pepper helped convince me I was finally reading something great in 10th grade English. Back then I hadn't spent years in writing workshops to make me sweat every adverb so I was scandalized afresh by the volume of -ly words Fitzgerald tacks on to the he saids and she saids.

If I had a problem with GATZ it was with Jordan (played by Susie Sokol). It's not just that she lacked gray, sun-strained eyes (a phrase Fitzgerald liked so much he used it twice in the novel)--it's that I could never put my finger on her role in the office. Was she an indolent cleaning lady with a passion for Golf Magazine? And I didn't love the way she flatlined Jordan's reckless driving declaration that other people could be careful for her, my favorite line in the book.

Jim Fletcher's Gatsby will never be confused with Redford or DiCaprio but in the hair left on his balding head one could sense a bit of that rubbed-in champagne. Victoria Vazquez's Daisy was excellent as well, capturing the character's air of slightly overdone glamor made to seem casual. Gary Wilmes' Tom was best of all--certainly the most commanding vocal presence of the bunch. Though consideration of the play always comes back to Shepherd's wry unreliability.

Like Katherine I felt something shift when Nick puts down the book halfway through the last chapter and begins reciting from memory (Shepherd can apparently recite Gatsby straight through if given any three consecutive words). There's probably a different section for every reader that inspires high emotion. For me it's a passage just before that boat is borne back ceaselessly into the past: Nick's college homecoming. Here we understand how Shepherd's notable lack of gravitas is a strength of the play--our emotions are allowed to swell on their own.

After eight hours of overcaffeination, drenching walks in NYC rain and peregrinations about the hurricane fenced, under renovation Public Theater lobby, I teared up for the trains going back to the Middle West from New York, Princeton, New Haven. My eyes blurred in time with the passing boxcars, flashing as yellow rectangles across that stage of life.

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