The eyes see it all. The looming billboard of T.J. Eckleburg’s watchful gaze, faceless and omnipresent, glows in the spotlight of the theater. The spectacles, now synonymous with the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, to many considered an American treasure, confirms Twin City Stage’s production as undeniably Gatsby. However, even with the iconic disembodied visual, this production, and countless other attempts since the novel’s release, lacks little in terms of ambition, yet is unable to deliver as promised.
The Simon Levy adaptation does indeed maintain the lyrical flow of the original, which is surely why it is the exclusive authorized play of the Fitzgerald Estate. The story remains intact: love and deception run rampant through New York’s societal elite in the summer of 1922. Levy wisely emphasizes the character Nick Carraway’s first-person accounts as bystander to all happenings. Nick often ceases the action of the play by breaking the 4th wall, speaking directly to the audience and narrating the events.
The script in itself is merely adequate. Although the beauty of the text is well preserved, and all major components of the classic are delivered, it still at times feels far too hurried. The structural pace never allows the characters or audience the opportunity to stew in the emotional discomfort, amplified by summer heat, which pulsates throughout the novel.
Midway through the production, Nick turns from the stage and with attuned perception states, “…There must have been moments even then when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.”
Of course this refers to Jay Gatsby’s sensitivity to the woman he loves, however it also seems directly congruent with the exalted aura surrounding The Great Gatsby as a literary staple, and how audiences receive its many re-envisionings. Possibly, there will never be a perfect adaption to equal the original.
However, this production certainly has many of the elements it needs to be triumphant. Costume designer, Justin Hall, achieves brilliance with a lush selection of Jazz-age authentic garb. The women were decked out in drop-waist dresses with flapper fringe or beaded embellishments. They had printed headscarves, avant-garde accessories, and deco-inspired jewelry. The men looked dapper in tailored tuxedos, contrasting vests, and bowties. Overall the fashion esthetic of the play luxuriated with aristocratic splendor of the roaring twenties.
The set, smartly done by director/scenic designer Mark Pirolo, monopolized the entirely of the stage while remaining relatively minimalistic. There was a large platform with stairs that served multiple purposes throughout the show, festive lanterns draping the stage, and screens that veiled specific actions taking place, stimulating intimacy among crowds. Danny Alvarez did an exquisite job of lighting the production. The delicate hues and shadows brought to life the flickering of party lights off the water, romantic starlit nights, and pastel summers.
Unfortunately, this production fell short with its inconsistent cast. The success of the play depends greatly on balancing the flamboyant extravagance of energetic party scenes with the private emotional turmoil. Sadly, the ensemble moments felt limp with lifeless dancing and polite revelry. There was never a sense that Gatsby’s parties were a place where booze flowed freely in the height of Prohibition, where new styles of music and dance were still considered naughty and debaucherous, and that at any given moment the most fascinating thing could take place. There was a stifled element of vibrancy and fun.
Stephen Howard as Nick was perfectly delightful and charming, although more of his character’s gradual disenchantment as the play unfolded would have really propelled his performance. Patrick Meehan as the “hulking” Tom Buchanan was the strongest performance of the night. He was dominant and arrogant, while displaying a genuine affection for Daisy. Rene Lynn Walek was appropriately cast as the insolent and cool Jordan Baker.
The romantic chemistry was entirely absent between Miranda Lowder as Daisy and Jim French as Jay Gatsby. Lowder struggled to give complexity to a character that is overtly one-dimensional, flippant, and girlishly childish. Although French was visually an ideal fit for Gatsby, he did not quite master making the language and cadence his own. Across the board, the actors seemed to exhibit difficulty truly listening to one another and responding authentically. Therefore, relationships seemed forced, and the dialogue appeared as simply the reciting of lines instead of natural conversation.
To be fair, undertaking such an epically beloved story is no easy feat. There will always be the inevitable opposition, however the attempt should always be applauded. Successful or not, ambitious theatre is always courageous.
The Great Gatsby continues through Sunday, April 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.