F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby,Adapted for the Stage by Simon Levy, Directed by David Esbjornson, November 2 – December 10, 2006, Seattle Rep.
“The Great Gatsby”, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel that lays bear the darkness in the heart of the Jazz Age, is currently being brought to life at the Seattle Center in an adaptation by Simon Levy. Levy has captured the essence of the book and transferred it to the sage in such an expert fashion that I found myself wondering during the first act, “Do I really not remember this book?” and the actors mostly give excellent performances. The set design is also spectacular.
When I read “The Great Gatsby” many years ago, I was severely bored by the book’s early parts and very irritated at the story’s Nick Carraway, who is alternatively appalled and impressed by the irresponsible and decadent ways of his rich cousin Daisy, her husband Tom, and their circle of friends. It wasn’t until Nick becomes the facilitator of a meeting between the mysterious, fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby—who turns out to be a former lover of Daisy who still desperately wants to reunite with her - that the book became interesting to me.
With Levy’s adaptation, however, the story grabbed me from the first moment, and I was so engrossed in it that it was unrecognizable to me until well into the first act. Yes, Tom as a bastard, Daisy was frustratingly vapid, and Jordan was an inscrutable middleground, but the story was engaging to a degree it hadn’t been before, and Nick wasn’t quite the annoying twit. Having since skimmed the novel again, I now can see that I need to credit Levy for taking Fitzgerald’s novel and creating a faithful stage translation that grabs the audience in ways the novel fails to do.
Some of the credit for making this play such fascinating viewing must also go to Matthew Amendt, who gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Nick Carraway, and he brings an impressive amount of depth to this character who admires Jay Gatsby for his strong spirit but nonetheless refuses to be drawn into his obsessive dreams. The growing unease, eventual heartbreak, and ultimate revulsion at the callous superficiality of America’s upper-class that Nick experiences as events unfold are brought splendidly to life by Amendt as he slips in and out of a character participating in the play’s action and his role as narrator.
An equally impressive performance is delivered by Lorenzo Pisoni, who plays Gatsby. Pisoni manages to convey a character who is the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties—the ultimate playboy party-host—yet who still something odd about him. With the sometimes awkward delivery of Gatsby’s favorite salutation--“old sport” --Pisoni conveys hints of Gatsby’s true background and nature before we learn of them through the unfolding of the plot. Similarly, Pisoni expertly conveys the overpowering love that Gatsby feels for Daisy—a love around which he has shaped his life and for which directed his every action for five years of his life—with looks and body language in ways so convincing that makes the tragedy of Gatsby’s final fate, and the way Daisy so casually dismisses his very existence, hit home with great force.
While Amendt and Pisoni are the most impressive performers in the play, the other principle cast members also make a fine accounting of themselves. Heidi Armbruster (as Daisy) presents a vapid character who provides just enough illusion of possessing empathy for others that she seems a believable object for Gatsby’s love, while Erik Heger (as Tom) plays her self-important, hypocritical, philandering, abusive husband with such vigor that the audience can’t help but hope for Gatsby’s success in taking her away from such a man. Hager’s performance is a bit much early in the play, but as events mount, his intensity is exactly what the role requires. Finally, Cheyenne Casebier (as Jordan) is excellent as the one person among the idle rich that seems to be a decent person on the level of Nick or Gatsby, but who is ultimately revealed to be as soulless as Tom and Daisy.
The staging and the set design is as impressive as the actors. Set designer Tom Lynch manages to move the action from the mansion of Tom and Daisy, to the squalid apartments of Hell’s Kitchen, to Gatsby’s sprawling pleasure palace, and back again. It’s awe-inspiring what he’s done with a backdrop painting of summer clouds, a few walls, and a few significant pieces of furniture. Heck, he even managed to get Gatsby’s pool on stage in a way so effective I wouldn’t have thought possible. Finally, the graceful changes of scenery that happen as Nick addresses the audience were exceedingly well conceived and executed.
“The Great Gatsby” is a fabulous play that is well worth seeing. Director David Esbjornson and everyone involved have good reasons to be proud of their work.