The Great American Novel has not become the Great American Play.
Arizona Theatre Company has undertaken the rather daunting task of mounting Simon Levy's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the novel considered by many to be F. Scott Fitzgerald's defining work and the prime candidate for that rather outsized designation as the Great American Novel. It's a sparkling, sprawling presentation, largely true to Fitzgerald's story, set in those Roaring '20s several years before the Great Depression. Although great care has been taken by both the adapter and the theater, the effect is a beautiful impression that glides across the stage—quite literally, considering the use of a revolving stage—and retells a story that doesn't benefit in a substantive way from the transfer from one medium to another. It disappoints in leaving a lasting dramatic footprint.
The admirable intention of most adaptations is to give us an opportunity to take in the original work's story, its characters and its themes in a way that might make them more accessible, or, in the best of circumstances, illuminate them in such a manner that we can discover the work in a fresh or even surprisingly different way. But it's tricky business, because each medium has its own way of making its point and delivering its impact—and its own expectations of those who take it in.
Fitzgerald's story takes on the troubling trend toward money, glitz and glamour in post-World War I America. After victory in the war to end all wars, how could there be anything standing in the way of a world of privilege and prosperity if one were willing to work hard and, perhaps, from time to time, bend the rules a bit?
The story actually belongs to Nick Carraway (Zachary Ford). He's a smart, openhearted young man from the Midwest who has enjoyed the benefits of a good upbringing, a Yale education and surviving a dangerous coming-of-age as a soldier. He is our narrator, and Ford skillfully provides the engine that drives this production. Articulate, observant and curious, he is in his own way determined to carve out for himself a life of stability, respect and wealth.
Moving to Long Island for a summer to learn the bond business, he rents a small cottage next to the property of Jay Gatsby (David Andrew Macdonald). It's a sprawling landscape with an almost comically ostentatious manor, owned by a man cloaked in mystery. Rumors fly about his origins, his business and his lifestyle, and he seems to enjoy the anonymity of his oversized but oddly thin presence in the seaside community.
Carraway has a distant cousin, Daisy (Monette Magrath), who lives across the Sound with her wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan (William Peden), a "hulking" athletic man who was Nick's classmate at school. Daisy has decided their friend, professional golfer Jordan Baker (Sofia Jean Gomez), would be a good summer match for Nick. He, however, is out of his league in their world of old money and the excesses of easy wealth, which includes Tom's open, but mostly overlooked, attachment to a rather classless paramour.
The plot thickens when Gatsby confides in Nick that he has been in love with Daisy since before he went to war, and is sure that she is in love with him. He believes his wealth will now be the key to winning her away from Tom, and he enlists Nick to help arrange a meeting in which Gatsby will reveal himself and his love. It seems that Gatsby's dream scenario will come to pass—but dreams are often ill-fated, even great American ones.
In this theatrical version of this tale of misguided dreams and the empty allure of wealth, we watch the story, but we don't feel it. There doesn't seem to be enough time to develop these characters so that we feel for them. Without this attachment, their tragedy is hollow.
Director Stephen Wrentmore has assembled a first-rate cast. The actors do a skillful job of creating these familiar characters, and our lack of emotional attachment with them is not really the actors' fault. In the need to get this complicated story told, they are required to deliver characters who reveal their essence in a moment, which they actually do fairly well. But in brief and episodic scenes, there is little opportunity for the kind of development required for us to understand them, to hate them, to have sympathy for them. Even with Ford's charm and sincerity, Nick's story of coming of age in this peculiar set of circumstances doesn't sink into our hearts.
Still, this is an impressive production. Yoon Bae's multiple settings evoke the period and the social class, and the complex transitions are well-orchestrated. There are some questionable choices, however. The production style suggests theatrical realism, complete with the appearance of a bright-yellow roadster. But when Nick and Gatsby board a hydroplane, two women hold aloft large blocklike pieces that become the wings of the plane, and in a moment are transformed into the chassis of a taxicab. It's quite a clever effect, but it doesn't keep with the rest of the production style.
Perhaps the real star of the show is David Kay Mickelsen's costumes. They represent an amazing array of period opulence, and they absolutely help us know who these characters are. It's a great achievement—but it's definitely not a director's dream to have technical craftsmanship trump a show's dramatic impact.
There are many commendable aspects of ATC's production, but the dangers of adapting a novel—an American classic, no less—to live and breathe effectively within the very different demands of telling stories onstage are all too obvious. In the end, the story feels as empty as the stylish but hollow lives of its characters.