‘Gatz’ review: Improbable, inventive and truly rewarding theater

From left: Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher and Tory Vazquez in "Gatz." 
From left: Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher and Tory Vazquez in "Gatz."  Photo Credit: Baked by Melissa

‘Gatz’ runs at NYU Skirball through Feb. 3. 566 LaGuardia Pl., nyuskirball.org.

You were probably assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz Age novel “The Great Gatsby” as a freshman or sophomore in high school. Perhaps you actually read it — or at least watched one or more of its various screen adaptations, including Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 over-the-top 3D version with Leonardo DiCaprio. And if you are one of the many who considers it the "Great American Novel,” perhaps you’ve even reread it.

But have you ever read it aloud or listened to someone do so? It is a whole other experience — not unlike the difference between reading and hearing Shakespeare — heightening the lyrical beauty of the language itself and Fitzgerald’s imagery, melancholy and wry sense of humor.

Devised by the experimental theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service, “Gatz” is one of the most improbable, inventive and rewarding theatrical experiences of the past decade. The unabridged dramatic presentation of “The Great Gatsby” runs  eight hours, including a dinner break and intermissions. 

It has toured internationally and won acclaim virtually everywhere, including in 2011 when it made its Off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater. Just as the novel is worth revisiting, so is “Gatz,” and the original production (directed by John Collins) is currently playing a short run at NYU Skirball. Notwithstanding the show’s marathon length, this is a must-see event for bibliophiles and serious theatergoers alike.

Laurena Allan, Gary Wilmes, Scott Shepherd, Annie McNamara, Kate Scelsa and Vin Knight in "Gatz."
Laurena Allan, Gary Wilmes, Scott Shepherd, Annie McNamara, Kate Scelsa and Vin Knight in "Gatz." Photo Credit: Mark Barton/Mark Barton

“Gatz” represents Elevator Repair Service at its most mainstream level. It is experimental and playful, yet also coherent and narrative-driven. I have attended other shows by the company where I was utterly bewildered by whatever was going on.

As in “The Great Gatsby,” “Gatz” is shrouded in mystery. It takes place in a dingy office space circa 1999. As an unnamed employee (Wooster Group veteran Scott Shepherd) waits haplessly for his computer to boot up, he opens the familiar paperback edition of the novel and begins to read it aloud, steadily growing into its narrator, Nick Carraway.

His co-workers, originally going about their daily routines, eventually take on the roles of the other characters, including the elusive Gatsby (Jim Fletcher, quiet but restless) and the flighty Daisy (Tory Vasquez and Annie McNamara at alternating performances).

In order to reduce any sense of monotony, the tone of the presentation often changes, suddenly seguing into physical comedy or wild partying. The industrial set design remains the same, though subtle lighting changes help immeasurably.

People can find great personal meaning in “The Great Gatsby” at any point in time, but the title character’s obsessive desire to fix the present by returning to the past has renewed relevance today.  

My only regret about this encore run of “Gatz” is that NYU Skirball is a large, concert-like venue; an intimate setting would work much better in terms of audience experience.