Jim Fletcher and Scott Shepherd in Gatz
(© Joan Marcus)
Jim Fletcher and Scott Shepherd in Gatz
(© Joan Marcus)
Hearty congratulations to The Elevator Repair Service for doing something many have tried on screen and stage and at which few have come away triumphant. The ingenious group, under director-founder John Collins' inspired guidance, has adapted The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's perfect 1925 novel, into a mesmerizing theater piece called Gatz, now making its New York debut at the Public Theater.

While the work includes the entire text -- resulting in a six-hour-15-minute production (plus two short intermissions and a 75-minute dinner break) -- the lengthy production goes by in what seems like a blink of an eye.

One reason for the show's success is that Collins and his 13-member cast tackle the novel in an ingenious, stylish, and alluringly oblique, rather than head-on, fashion. As the play begins, it's morning in a rundown office (designed by Louisa Thompson with clutter on her mind) where two computers sit on desks but where a typewriter is still in use. An unidentified fellow (Scott Shepherd) arrives -- not acknowledging a co-worker at a sound-board stage right -- and attempts to boot his computer unsuccessfully.

Frustrated, he flips open his Rolodex, where he discovers a copy of the Fitzgerald book. Slowly and in flat tones -- as other employees go about their dull routines -- he begins reading narrator Nick Carraway's account of the three summer-1922 months he spent on Long Island with flashy, mysterious and ultimately tragic next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby and with Daisy Buchanan, the married woman Gatsby loves.

As the computer-deprived drudge reads the book, he soon becomes Carraway, and his colleagues cease their office duties and become Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), Daisy (Victoria Vasquez), Tom Buchanan (Gary Wilmes), golf whiz Jordan Baker (Susie Sokol), Tom's bit-on-the-side Myrtle Wilson (Laurena Allan), her dim-witted mechanic husband George (Aaron Landsman), and the other hot-cha 1920s figures who, among other preoccupations, populate Gatsby's wild parties.

Rarely have characters so boisterously and buoyantly leaped off the page, most notably in the scene where Tom insists Nick accompany Myrtle and him from fictional East Egg to an impromptu drinks party in the tiny flat he's rented for his extra-marital flings. Likewise, the anxious gaiety and resulting hangover that the astute 28-year-old Fitzgerald recorded of his era recurs in succeeding scenes.

Equally importantly, because every syllable of the book's astonishing prose is read, the ear continues to be enthralled throughout the proceedings; and the novel's final pages, which contain some of the most beautiful writing in the English language are immeasurably enhanced by Shepherd's delivery.

If there are a couple of flaws present, they're mostly to be found in scattered moments when what is serious in Fitzgerald is mocked in the playing. Also, Fletcher isn't entirely successful at embodying the title figure; he has a marvelous Gatsby-like profile, but too often he mistakes stiffness for aloofness. Still, these minor quibbles shouldn't prevent anyone from getting in on Gatz.