October 7, 2010

If you're in New York and seeing You can't get there from here but you can get here from there, the show that Claire Bowen described in a recent post, you should also try to see another astonishing union of literary work and vivid display in the the seven hour production of Gatz at the Public Theater (reviewed in today's Times). I saw it last February in Cambridge, and it is just amazing.

An office worker, filled with ennui and anomie, starts reading The Great Gatsby. He reads the whole thing, aloud, over the course of the seven hours, as the other people in the office slowly morph into the novel's characters (he of course is Nick). They do the dialogue, and he does the narrative (including the speech tags, which I note of course are part of narrative). It's hypnotic and becomes utterly captivating.

The best thing that happens is that about twenty pages from the end, after Gatsby's final conversation with Nick, Nick closes the book, and just tells us the last fifteen or twenty pages from memory. By then the actor and/or the office worker has completely merged with Nick. Gatsby is great: he's done the Gatsby thing, he's made Nick Nick.

As with Bela Tarr's movies, the one space you see for so long a time becomes riveting. Also, as with Tarr, the sound-track is amazing: traffic, jazz, crickets, birds, the muffled Mendelssohn wedding march coming from downstairs at the Plaza -- all of it creates a surround in which the characters come to life. Nick's obsession with Gatsby and the office worker's obsession with the book (he can't put it down) become mutually illuminating images of each other.

And when he closes the book and starts just telling us what happened, and what he thinks about Gatsby, well it brings out the way the book is about being in the presence, for a while, of a character from fiction, living that privileged, superseded moment, and then musing about it afterwards, remembering it, remembering what it was like, telling us. Scott Shepherd -- who plays Nick -- is really Scott Shepherd now, is himself as Nick has come to be just himself. He's become the person done with his absorption in his reading, in the world of his past, and able to speak of it to us, clearly and directly but a little wryly now, in the present.

The only words Sheperd speaks that aren't in the book are half-way through, when he announces the intermission for dinner: "We'll take a break now and start up again in 90 minutes," he says right to the audience, and here you get the seed of the authority with which he'll speak at the end. It really matters; this moment sets up the subtly more direct address to the audience which is his mode when he just says those last pages.

Nick in the last twenty pages is really telling us what it's like to read the book obsessively, no doubt what it was like to write the book, and to have killed off the great character so that the writing is almost over, has become a memorial to itself. But its residue is the character secure in the knowledge of what he talks about, not only what he says about Gatsby but what he says about what the world is like.

It was an amazing thing. And amazing to think that they (the Elevator Repair Service is the name of the company) had been doing this show six days a week for four weeks (and now are doing it for two months in New York), which means that Shepherd has read and recited the entirety of the novel, word for word, six days a week for the last month (Rebecca Mead, in The New Yorker, says that Shepherd can recite the whole book, and can go on from any three-word prompt). That daily repetition seems an astonishing feat of conceptual art (take that, Kenny Goldsmith!) but the conceptual art isn't the point: the immersion in Gatsby, in the person and the world he makes possible, is. The world he makes possible: the world of fiction.

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