REVIEW: Gatz at McCarter is a Postmodern Romp Through Fitzgerald Country

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Gatz by the Elevator Repair Service.

An hour or so into Gatz, papers start falling to the floor in the dreariest office you can imagine. Soon barely an inch of the stage will be left uncovered.

Think of it as wry metaphor for what we’ve already been watching.Gatz,Elevator Repair Service’s (hereafter ERS) acclaimed piece of devised theater, is, at its core, an occasionally brilliant deconstruction of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved The Great Gatsby.

No, let me rephrase that. “Deconstruction” isn’t quite the right term. In the literal sense, few adaptations are as faithful: the entire text of the novel is recited on stage during the roughly seven-hour running time (that includes a full dinner break and two intermissions). A few words of nearly inaudible crosstalk make up the only dialogue not by Fitzgerald.

What “deconstruction” does capture is the way Gatz traffics in the kind of teasing intellectual gamesmanship that was a hallmark of the literary theory boom. At one point, “Jordan Baker”—by which I mean the actor playing the character of an office worker who assumes the role of Jordan Baker—shoots a challenging look at the play’s narrator/Nick Carraway figure, then takes hold of his copy ofthe noveland starts reading it aloud. You can almost hear your English professor asking the class, “Who owns the narrative?”

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself—you need more context. The central conceit of Gatz places us in this awful room as we watch a small group of enervated people half-heartedly gesturing at office work. One of them, a middle-aged Everyman figure, idly picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby. As he begins to read, he transforms into the dual role—Nick and the narrator—analogous to the one in the novel. ERS veteran Scott Shepherd—who has been part of the Gatz ensemble since its first performance, a dozen or so years ago—gives a brilliant but tellingly low-key performance.

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Scott Shepherd in Gatz by the Elevator Repair Service.

Soon others enter into the action. They too assume characters from the book, and they act out Fitzgerald’s words in ways that are intriguingly similar to—but also different from—The Great Gatsby.

Much of Gatz is pointedly about this ironic disconnection. The louche affluence of Fitzgerald’s Long Island Elysium could hardly be more different from this dreary hole-in-the-wall workspace, luridly lit by fluorescent tubing (sets by Louisa Thompson, lighting by Mark Barton). A small window at the rear reinforces the point: sometimes what we see evokes a lovely forested path, perhaps a route to Gatsby’s mythical West Egg; at other times, it’s boarded-up and opaque.

By now, audience members who are also veterans of literary study will have understood the most (sorry) postmodern device on display in Gatz. For although the show scrupulously recreates and celebrates Fitzgerald’s novel, the writer’s work isn’t really what’s front and center—it’s the reader’s interpretive experience.

Aspects of this multiplicity make Gatz a thrilling journey, and certainly catnip for English department scholars. The whole thing revels in deliberate ambiguity. There are, for sure, two layers always in play—the novel’s text and imagery, alongside how it’s being read and considered in this radically different milieu.

And it doesn’t stop there. We’re invited to question every element of what’s happening in this room. Are the other participants in Gatz part of the action? Or are they ghost-people, imagined projections/reflections of Shepherd/Narrator/Nick? The “answer” remains tantalizingly unclear.

The day I saw the show at McCarter, Gatz was clearly a transformative experience for many members of the audience. Fans of the source material (and they are legion) are particularly drawn to it, though the frame could equally make some them irate.

For me, the show works its magic intermittently. Some scenes are breathtaking—none more so than Nick and Jordan quietly immersed in tense conversation as the stage is gradually engulfed in darkness. Shepherd’s performance of the final section (essentially, Nick’s leave-taking monologue) feels so deeply rooted in the actor’s DNA that you truly believe he’s discovering every insight for the first time. Remember: he’s been doing this for more than a decade—and according to ERS’s website, he has the entire novel memorized. Jim Fletcher, another veteran of the show, is transfixing as the elliptical title character. (The rest of the ensemble do what they can, but the show’s structure doesn’t allow them much nuance.)

Yet in the end, I don’t see that Gatz has much to say about The Great Gatsby beyond illuminating the discordant juxtaposition of its world and Fitzgerald’s. Thinking about it a day later, I’m still wondering what the show’s ultimate point might be.

I admit that I have similarly conflicted feelings about the novel. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s language and imagery, and some of its profound ideas, continue to awe me decades after I first encountered it. At the same time, I think the characters are toxic, and Fitzgerald’s own love of luxury is tough to take. (Only a fool would attempt to summarize the novel in a sentence or two, but what the hell: The Great Gatsby is about the uniquely American way in which identity can be constructed. Self-invention and success can be swift and exhilarating, but beware: the center won’t hold for long.)

Gatzis clearly focused on its surrounding office life frame, but here its finger-wagging is also punctuated with an element of tone-deafness. Fitzgerald’s novel, too, has a tonal problem. He clearly means to critique the excesses and lack of self-awareness among those who have too much of everything (beauty, money, success), but we can’t help feeling he’s as besotted with them as they are with each other and themselves. So, it’s appropriate that, as academics might put it, Gatz interrogates Fitzgerald’s own unexamined privilege.

But the irony in Gatz (and as we know, postmodernism dines out on irony) is that ERS clearly has its own problem with self-awareness. What exactly is this office meant to be? Is there actual work to do? Is it really a place where people can show up and randomly read for seven hours?

The creators of Gatz obviously want to show their solidarity with the rank and file. Clearly, they pity the working stiffs consigned to the horrors of this situation, and they are implicitly critical of the corporate culture that holds them hostage. But judging from what’s on the stage, nobody involved has the slightest idea what working in an office actually involves.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. This is a theater company that chose to name itself after a blue-collar occupation. My hat is off to the talented, creatively daring, obviously hardworking ensemble. But I’m willing to bet that no one involved in Gatz has ever actually repaired an elevator.

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