Ain’t We Got Fun?

Domenick Ammirati on Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz

Elevator Repair Service, Gatz. Performance view, NYU Skirball, 2019. Jim Fletcher. Photo: Chris Beirens.

THERE’S NOTHING VERY COOL about going to see an eight-hour production of The Great Gatsby. I tried to get it past the kultur cop in my head by looking into various alternate interpretations of the play, my favorite being one originated by the now dean of Medgar Evers College, Carlyle V. Thompson, back in 2000, when he argued that Gatsby was in fact a light-skinned black man passing as white. Thompson cites clues like the forty acres that Gatsby owns, the withheld obscenity that gets scrawled on his front steps, the way Tom Buchanan’s racist claptrap helps frame the novel (“If we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged”). It’s a great take, and remarkably (or not), it proved jolting enough to the cultural apparatus that a humble academic paper made it to CNN and The Guardian.

According to convention, of course, The Great Gatsby is the story of a doomed romance between two white people and what happens to those who are unable to let go of the past. Hotly familiar with romantic imbroglios and regressive fantasies myself, and feeling overall a little wanly generic, I went into the play having penciled in a day of comfortable wallowing. Gatz offers no room for wallowing, however, nor is there anything churchy about it. The epic by Elevator Repair Service comes at you as quite the opposite—antic, with knockabout humor and a bracing critique of money-grubbing, leaning on the book’s buzziness and filtering events through a silhouette of office comedy.

That setup is key: One morning, a keyboard rattler played by Scott Shepherd working in a shabby office circa 1991 can’t get his computer to start up. He idly flips open his Rolodex and there finds, for some reason, a copy of the American novel par excellence. As the rest of the staff trickles in and goes indifferently about starting a day of business—they seem to work in financial services—Shepherd begins reading the beat-up paperback with enthusiasm and curiosity and mirth and discovery, like he’s reading it for the first time; his performance seduces the viewer, and its continuance through every one of the text’s forty-seven-thousand-odd words is brilliantly executed. As the office drone melts into the character of Nick Carraway, the dingy workplace drains away, replaced by the distilled reality of Gotham in the Roaring Twenties. The interplay between events in this office and in Fitzgerald’s text is ingeniously conceived and executed, with the lines of the book being read aloud keying to bleating cordless phones, the comings and goings of IT guys, admin assistants seeking signatures, and eventually the entry of an authority figure, played by Jim Fletcher, who one quickly surmises will become our Jay Gatz.

The play’s leaning into comedy—and it is effective and very funny—is a tactic with guessable causes. For one thing, making an audience laugh right away puts them at ease, and the sheer entertainment and occasional goofiness of the humor make the time go faster throughout. It also provides a useful way to deal with the bits of the book that are a little dicey for contemporary audiences; after all, if you’re committed to every word, you can’t just edit out Fitzgerald’s fixation on Meyer Wolfsheim’s nose hair and gutter-ethnic pronunciation, or the fact that the women in the book say a lot of airheaded shit. The comedic gloss allows the fact that the female characters (with the exception of Jordan Baker, to some degree) are flat, often ridiculous stereotypes to exist on the same plane with the fact that all the other characters are flat, often ridiculous, or, like Buchanan, grotesque—except, of course, our narrator and would-be moral compass, Carraway.

Elevator Repair Service, Gatz. Performance view, NYU Skirball, 2019. From left: Jim Fletcher, Scott Shepherd, and Susie Sokol. Photo: Ian Douglas.

With Gatsby himself, however, this tactic results in a bit of a loss. As directed, Gatsby appears clumsy and even clownish, his gangsterism telegraphed with flashes of thuggish leanings in. The character’s ambiguity, depth—and, significantly, his charm—are vital to making the reader/audience care about his ultimate fate, to agree with Carraway’s valediction of him near the book’s end: “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” But Fletcher is never given the opportunity to make us feel this way. And to be fair, when you focus on Gatsby’s actual lines in the book, as Gatz allows you amply to do, you realize how much Fitzgerald demands we read into the mysterious man in the monstrous mansion. He’s oblique, with his humanizing backstory delivered only in the third person and thus left a bit remote. The direction keeps it that way. When Carraway tells of his first encounter with Gatsby’s remarkable, radiant, ingratiating smile, we get only an opaque grimace across a shabby table.

There’s nevertheless something beautiful about the way the play dumps its two conventional interpretations, the ones I had boneheadedly strolled in with—that Gatsby and Daisy are doomed lovers and that Gatsby is a man in thrall to an ideal at the expense of reality. Rather, it underscores that he and everyone else in this universe are dupes of capital. The love story is a love story to money. In Gatz, the lines that emphasize avarice leap out: Young Daisy gleams “like silver” in Lieutenant Gatz’s eye; her voice is “full of money.” In a farcical sequence where the two tour Gatsby’s mansion with Nick reluctantly in tow, she literally weeps over his tailored wardrobe as Fletcher flings some heinous laundry across the stage and she buries her face in it: “‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds.” A hanger-on forced by Gatsby to play piano absolutely kills with his delivery of a pointed line from the Jazz Age classic “Ain’t We Got Fun”:



And it’s not just those two. It’s the party guests, it’s even Wilson, the garage owner, hapless cuckold, toy of fate, and eventual taker of mistaken revenge. In his grief after his wife has been killed, he looks up at an advertisement—the eyes of oculist Eckleburg and in it sees God. At times the play almost turns into a black comedy, with Gatsby and Daisy seeming like two stupid people crassly in love with each other for what they represent and what they can buy, not who they are.

But the book is too lambent and the play too extensive for this or any other single interpretation to hold on for its entirety. Eight hours gives the weak human mind too much time to wander and wonder and reconsider. Also, the director, John Collins, mixes up the moods and modes. In the earlier sections of the play, the levity is often pierced by foreshadowing of the last third’s dire turn with harsh car noises—engines gunning, tires squealing. He executes a few choice imagistic moments, such as the gorgeously sad tableau presented in the green-light scene. Gatsby stands silhouetted in profile in a door, and a green dot looms high behind him, like a diode on an unalarmed security system when one is closing an office for the night. The gesture brilliantly collapses that lonely feeling of closing up a shabby workplace—of being tendered with the responsibility for something mediocre, like one’s shabby life—with Gatsby’s grander deprivation, suturing together with a causal stitch the themes of money lust and more existential despair.

The last third of the book isn’t exactly a laugh riot, of course. The story grows sweaty and claustrophobic as it progresses through tense exchanges among the principals, the hit-and-run, the murder-suicide, and the funereal aftermath and tying up of loose ends. I had forgotten completely that Gatsby’s father eventually drifts in from the Middle West, an old man feeble in body and mind who is marvelously proud of his son’s affluence and indifferent to how he came by it. The comedic structure that’s sustained through the first two thirds makes for an awkward transition to the grimmer events and undermines the impact of a climax and denouement that are fairly described as tragic. There’s a fart joke at the Plaza, for Chrissakes. By the final monologues, though, the pathos has clamped firmly into place, and the task of recounting the novel has left Shepherd as apparently and appropriately drained as a man who has actually witnessed soul-crushing events.

From the moment you become half a grown-up people start warning you about the dangers of nostalgia and sentimentalism. Yet Gatsby was strangely eager to believe, against all counsel and evidence, that you can in fact throw aside the passage of time and repeat the past, a classic mental error that even Freud couldn’t fuck up diagnosing. This beating of boats against the current is personally corrosive, but, applied generally, it’s also politically toxic. Both the play and, to Fitzgerald’s credit, the book link Tom Buchanan’s racism to his paleoconservative railing against “the modern world.” His character and his Trumpian language of disgust seem too contemporary. Fortunately, Jay Gatz is only interested in ruining his own life, which leaves him a little innocent floating dead in his pool—or in Gatz’s case, on the ugly break-room sofa. The flawed is more beautiful than the perfected, and we’re all dumb enough with desire to sometimes struggle against the current of time. Which is fine. You have to have some green light to stare at; you have to have something to delude yourself with.

Gatz runs until February 3 at NYU’s Skirball Center and will play at Princeton’s McCarter Theater Center from February 15 to 17.