The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

My Kingdom for Cliff’s Notes: ‘Gatz’ West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep

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(Paula Court/Berkeley Rep)

“A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: ‘There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.’”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 4

Gatz appears to be a show meant to confirm every stereotype foreigners have about “uneducated Americans”. It is neither a tribute to nor commentary on Fitzgerald’s great American novel, but rather a reenactment of that famous South Park scene. You know the one: where the boys (all 8-year-olds) are diagnosed as having ADHD because their prepubescent minds can’t focus when having The Great Gatsby read in its entirety in a single sitting (after which, they’re all put on Ritalin).

And that may be the second-worst crime committed by Elevator Repair Service (the NY troupe who’ve brought their lauded 2010 show out west): the do nothing with the material. They don’t make it their own, add anything unique, or force the audience to reexamine a beloved text through new eyes. They just go through the entire book, cover-to-cover. That’s it. When Andy Kaufman would read it, it was as a means of trolling the audience; testing their patience for tolerating what they would and wouldn’t accept from someone just because they’re famous.

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A bored office worker (Scott Shepherd) imagines himself as Nick Carroway attending one of Gatsby’s lavish soirees. (Ian Douglas/ERS)

ERS have no such high ambitions, which is a shame because the opportunity is right in front of them. The show takes place entirely on Louisa Thompson’s wonderfully designed filing office set, with stone walls that suggest some medieval gulag rather than mid-town Manhattan (which we can deduce from the items on the wall and Ben Williams’ amazing soundscapes). The technology of the office – CRT computer monitors and bulky cordless phones – would suggest the late-‘90s, but nearly all the women are dressed like cast members from Mad Men. After one worker (Scott Shepherd) has the damndest time getting his PC to start, he pops open his rolodex and is surprised to find a well-worn, instantly-recognizable copy of Scribner’s Paperback edition of The Great Gatsby. He ponders it a moment, then begins to read it aloud.

Now, imagine all that could have been done with this setting? This is The Great Gatsby, the book with such bon mots as “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” It’s the book where one of the lead characters goes on a White supremacist rant that wouldn’t be out of place in contemporary social media (or a White House press briefing). It’s a book that still resonates because it deconstructs the arrogance of the bourgeoisie’s perceived superiority. Even the sight of the female actors in anachronistic Mad Men-era costumes recalls the time Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks did a purposefully anachronistic comedy sketch to make a fantastic point about women in the workforce.

ERS do nothing with it.

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When our bored narrator reads the text, he does so with the sort of lifeless monotone one would expect from a middle-schooler forced to read in front of the entire class. Even when he assumes the persona of Nick Carroway, his voice never varies beyond that of someone reciting the minutes of a previous company meeting. Given that this man will spend the next several hours reading a 189-page book in its entirety, one would assume that he’s saving his voice. But no, almost the entire cast matches this subdued energy.

Which leads us to the single-worst crime committed by ERS: they rob the story of passion. The Great Gatsby is all about passion – in addition to it numerous film and television adaptations, it’s also been adapted into ballets and operas. It’s right up there with Wuthering Heights and The Count of Monte Cristo in terms the classic “poor-guy-gets-rich-to-show-up-his-rivals-and-get-the-girl” trope. It’s a story meant to be played at volume 11. (Why do you think Baz Luhrmann, of all people, adapted it for film? That guy doesn’t know the meaning of “subtlety”.) The few moments the production does try to break the actors out of their funk – such as Myrtle’s husband rocking himself with grief – come off equally stilted, but at a higher volume.

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Myrtle (Laurena Allan) and her fellow revelers enjoy the high life. (Mark Barton/ERS)

The only two cast members who seem to have a handle on the show are Annie McNamara – who truly finds Daisy’s inner-turmoil – and Laurena Allan, who commands the stage every moment she steps on as Myrtle. She’s able to have the fun the rest of the show is missing. Whereas so many of the performers come off as woefully miscast – particularly Tom and Jay – had this been a proper adaptation, Myrtle and Daisy would be the stars.

The other major flaw of performers acting out the text in full is that their actions become redundant when described aloud, and vice versa. At the start of the play, the lines are blurred as to whether our narrator/Nick Carroway is truly reading the novel aloud or if we the audience are simply privy to his inner thoughts. After a while, the office setting becomes moot and the co-workers are simply the characters. This led to an irritating repetition where everything from a handshake to a wiped brow was physicalized and described, sometimes without synchronicity. Oddly enough, it well illustrated the disconnect of the show from the text, but this show isn’t Andy Warhol’s Vinyl.

But not all is drudgery. The rarely-acknowledged member of the troupe is board operator Ben Williams, who spends the majority of the show far-Stage-Right controlling the ambiance when not stepping on stage for the quick line or two. Colleen Werthmann’s costumes, both modern and anachronistic, are excellent down to the last stitch. Even when she takes liberties with the descriptions in the text (her “pink” Gatsby” suit is more lavender), it’s still immaculate costuming on her part.

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Jim Fletcher as The ‘Great’ Man himself. (Steven Gunther/ERS)

Occasional creative choices, such as having Jordan take the book from Nick to read aloud her memory of Daisy and the letter, are highlights. Equally compelling are Mark Barton’s lights, which make the subtle emotional shifts the characters often don’t. But these great moments are few and far between.

As the show comes to a close, Nick puts the book down and reads the bulk of the final chapter from memory alone. This should be a moment of pure awe: performer and text achieving symbiosis, and an actor so dedicated to a classical text that he can recite it by heart. Instead, the effect is that of watching someone who’s clearly drawing out every line like a freelance writer being paid by the word. As mentioned above, Gatz is performed as if by a grade-schooler fulfilling an assignment. Yes, they read the entire text, but this is the point when the teacher would ask “Did you understand it?”

Judging by what we’ve seen from 2pm to 10:40pm on opening, the response would likely be “No”.

GRADE:                                                        D

Gatz is scheduled to run until the 1st of March in the Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Rep.
The show runs roughly 6 ½ hours, not counting two 15-min. intermissions and a 2-hour dinner break.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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