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Critic's Notebook: A deeper meaning off-Broadway

The ambition of 'Gatz' and 'Angels in America,' two of the fall season's hottest events, contrasts with the limited reach of Broadway's commercial fare.

November 15, 2010|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

From New York — — Theatrical marathons, those all-day affairs adored by festival-trotting Europeans, are quietly staging a comeback in New York. Nothing as momentous as Peter Brook's production of "The Mahabharata" or the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Nicholas Nickleby" has landed. But "Gatz" and "Angels in America," which combine for roughly 15 hours, are unquestionably two of the hottest events of the fall season.

One would think rear ends would be rising up in revolt. But a metropolitan lust for camping out has taken hold off-Broadway, where both these works are persuading audience members to turn off their smart phones for extended periods and surrender to fictional worlds whose scope and intelligence can't be gobbled in fast-food gulps.

Broadway, by comparison, is stocked with trivial playthings, diversions quickly consumed and promptly forgotten at prices that encourage amnesia. Elevator Repair Service's "Gatz" and Signature Theatre Company's new production of "Angels" have their shortcomings, but the contrast between their ambition and the limited reach of even relatively high-end commercial fare is striking. Producers may never go broke underestimating the stupidity of the American public, but those that refuse to underestimate the intelligence of average theatergoers are getting a chance to demonstrate that king size can sell.

A full-text rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," "Gatz" has become a brilliant and preposterous cult hit at the Public Theater. Part narration, part theatricalization, the work begins at 3 in the afternoon and ends around 11:15 at night, a schedule that includes two intermissions and a dinner break. Much of the show features Scott Shepherd reading from a paperback copy of an American classic that is distinguished by its cascade of crystalline sentences. Fitzgerald may not have been the greatest of our country's first-rank storytellers, but he's unrivaled as a prose stylist, and the music of "Gatsby" softens the labor of this endurance test.

Not exactly a dramatization, "Gatz" takes place in a fluorescently generic warehouse that's stocked with cartons and outdated computers that take forever to boot. While waiting for his desktop to start, Shepherd's character begins reading "Gatsby," and the words of Fitzgerald reverberate with a vibrant immediacy as co-workers inaudibly carry on the daily business.

Shepherd blurs into narrator Nick Carraway, not exactly becoming him but channeling his attitudes and demeanor. In due course, the actors playing the warehouse employees pick up dialogue of the other characters and even start vaguely resembling them through costume coincidences that become less accidental as this quasi audio-book erupts into full-blooded scenes.

There's something purposefully subliminal in John Collins' staging, as though the production wants to preserve as much as possible the imaginative space of reading and the singular pleasure of perfectly wrought descriptions. These characterizations, flickered into existence by a company of 13 actors, aren't meant to be definitive but an enticement to our own dream-like conjuring.

I've been following the experimental path of ERS for more than 15 years, and my opinion of the company's determinedly wacky performance pieces — low-tech Wooster Group collages laced with dry sophomoric humor — has wavered. "Cab Legs," a wild dance-theater riff on Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke," was an early delight. More recently, "The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)," presented at REDCAT in 2008, served slices of William Faulkner in a more raucous manner than the Fitzgerald banquet.

In some respects, "Gatz," which has been making the domestic and international rounds since 2006 but is only now having its New York premiere, represents the fulfillment of the company's aesthetic. The coherence of the overall vision — the deadpan acting daubed with just enough color not to become monotonous and the bleak workplace design concept providing an Edward Hopper-like background — is pitch perfect.

Which isn't to say that the production earns its epic playing time of 6 hours, 15 minutes, not counting breaks. If "Gatz" unavoidably has the element of a stunt to it, it's because a novel, no matter how ingeniously staged, is fundamentally at odds with the theater's requirement of economy. Drama is undone by tangents. When momentum flags, audience members doze. (At any given point during my visit, about 5% of those around me had their eyes closed — just a respite to replenish stamina, not a chorus of condemnatory snoring.)

"Gatsby" is a strange book. I've read it several times, seen the movie, sat through the John Harbison opera, and yet for some reason, the plot is always new to me. I can never recall exactly how this complicated saga of Jazz Age swells unfolds. Part of this may have to do with the perfection of the prose, which can distract from a story organized as a puzzle.

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