By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
The emperor walked beneath the beautiful canopy in the procession, and all the people in the street said, "Goodness, the emperor's new clothes are incomparable! What a beautiful jacket. What a perfect fit!" No one wanted it to be noticed that he could see nothing, for then it would be said that he was unfit for his position or that he was stupid. None of the emperor's clothes had ever before received such praise. "But he doesn't have anything on!" said a small child.
The production of Gatz by the Elevator Repair Service, a New York based theatre company, has been praised internationally by critics and audiences for years. Finally seeing it during the brief stop at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton before it returns to New York’s Public Theatre, I find myself playing the role of the small child: the Emperor has no clothes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is a beloved, complex and generally wonderful book. Simultaneously indicting and adoring the world of glamorous “careless people,” Fitzgerald portrayed the moneyed vulgar world in prose both meditative and lush.
Gatz begins when a man (Scott Shepherd) who works in a grungy office discovers his computer isn’t working and finds a copy of The Great Gatsby in his rolodex. He starts to read it aloud—and continues to the end, nearly eight hours later. He functions as Nick Carroway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, but we never find out anything about the man or about anyone else in the office or what business they’re in or where they are or what year it is (computers plus manual typewriters?).
Without any context, the role-playing as it evolves has no layers; we never know what if any relation exits between the office characters and the novel’s characters. Sometimes the office workers seem to be aware of his reading aloud, other times, he seems to be reading to himself, only audible to us.
Everyone who has read the novel knows what these characters look like and sound like—Jordan Baker’s languid, athletic hauteur, Daisy’s voice that sounds like money, Tom’s muscular bulk under his elegant coat, Myrtle’s sexy, greedy neediness—and so on. We know what Gatsby’s silk shirts look and feel like, we see the green light across the bay.
So when these actors sound like and look like ordinary people, the allure that is the heart of the novel vanishes. In the second half the pretense of the office vanishes, the narrative is dramatized to a greater degree, and it becomes slightly more theatrical. But Gatz neither adapts nor interprets, it just reads aloud a book we could read to ourselves with more pleasure and in less time. Finally, this may be the longest, dullest audiobook ever.
Elevator Repair Service at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton NJ. Through Sunday. Tickets $150. (inc. both halves, 7 ¾ hours) Information: 609.258.2787 or www.mccarter.org