BWW Review: THE GREAT GATSBY Goes Melodrama at Heritage Players

BWW Review: THE GREAT GATSBY Goes Melodrama at Heritage Players

Despite many attempts, there has been no arguably great adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's quintessential Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby. None of the movies have quite sealed the deal; the Paul Newman edition was too staid, too Merchant-Ivory, while the Leonardo Di Caprio edition struck most critics as too experimental, too jarring with its action-movie cameras and era-spanning anachronisms. Theatre fans can likely tell you that there is no official, oft-produced Gatsby musical (several small-scale unlicensed productions have been attempted from the 1960s to today), and that the straight adaptation by Simon Levy is divisive for not entirely capturing the things that make the novel so special to many. A number of strong and idiosyncratic performances bolster the Heritage Players' production of Levy's Gatsby, but the show often seems to be at war between two extremes: a faithful rendition of Fitzgerald's world and style, and an entertaining stage drama. Given the detached, chilly coolness of Fitzgerald's characters, there's almost no way this show could be both.

In case you never took high school English, here's a quick rundown. In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, writer and aspiring businessman Nick Carraway (Noah Zamamiri) moves to Long Island and becomes an observer and confidante to two overlapping social circles. In the home of Daisy Buchanan (Elena Falgione), former Southern belle and now unhappy wife of brutish Tom (Steve Gallagher), he is quickly introduced to the decadent party scene ruled by rich cipher Jay Gatsby (Brendan Karras). Daisy is Gatsby's first love, and he quickly seizes on Nick as a way to bring their two worlds together. Nothing much happens, until all of a sudden, lots of things happen at once.

The writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald do not lend themselves to extremely literal adaptation. He is writerly in the most stereotypically writerly of ways, fond of extended internal monologue and dialogue intended to be read and savored, which sounds less stylized than stilted when spoken aloud directly as written. (Compare and contrast to filmmaker and writer George Lucas, whose original Star Wars scripts were heavily doctored by actors and production staff, but whose prequel scripts were spoken directly as written.) As such, many of the actors are frequently burdened with extremely "literary" dialogue, stylized in writing but not in play intent- even the small talk and chatter feels excessively mannered in this adaptation. Further compounding the struggle to present a good stage Gatsby is the fact that the novel is, intentionally, dramatically inert: despite the parties and wealth and drama that circulates around them, the characters of The Great Gatsby remain perpetually unfazed, chilly and detached. From the highest highs to the lowest lows, nothing really moves them, and great success and immense tragedy are shrugged off by everyone but Nick, the last true human being in West Egg. This anhedonia is anathema to the stage, so Levy's adaptation has converted the novel's plot, and much of its dialogue, into a more conventional melodrama. If the novel is the tragedy of those who feel nothing, Levy's stage version often comes across like the tragedy of those who feel everything.

Carrying the brunt of the play on his shoulders, Noah Zamamiri's Nick is an affable narrator/protagonist, confidently though incessantly monologuing and delivering exposition ripped straight from the novel's text. His portrayal may lack the nuances and ambiguity of Fitzgerald's own analogue in the novel (a character whose nebulous desires and sexual identity mirrored Fitzgerald's own questions of self), but he still does a more than capable job with the herculean task of narrating the Great American Novel onstage. His gentle, low-key style plays well against Brendan Karras's higher-strung Gatsby. Younger, smaller and less self-consciously cool than most Gatsbys, Karras plays the role as a man who knows he is a sham, milking his existence as consequence-free playboy for every last drop in case it all falls apart any moment. Imbuing the character with a youthful, almost man-child energy, his eccentric but winning Gatsby is reminiscent of Kyle McLachlan's turn as Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks. As Gatsby hanger-on Jordan Baker, Amanda Leigh comes closest to embodying Fitzgerald's own sensibility onstage, remaining amused and detached through the entirety of the play, even as the drama of the second act comes closer and closer to swallowing her up.

Elena Falgione, as Daisy Buchanan, delivers an immensely passionate, committed performance... so much so that she appears at times to be playing someone other than Daisy Buchanan. A note in her bio described her as a defender of Daisy Buchanan, and her performance onstage seems like a plea to craft a human, fully developed character from Fitzgerald's aloof rich-bitch-with-a-voice-that-sounds-like-money. It's a complete renunciation of the less-than-flattering, misogynist parody of Zelda Fitzgerald that her husband casually excoriates in his magnum opus- anyone with a knowledge of literary history will quickly surmise that Falgione is playing Zelda Fitzgerald, not Daisy Buchanan. If at times Falgione appears to be in a different show than the rest of the cast, it's because, on an ideological level, she is. This again highlights the weaknesses of Simon Levy's script- when an actor must fight their way out of an intentionally one-dimensional role to craft a three-dimensional character, the role you wind up with is more Blanche du Bois or Sally Bowles than Daisy Buchanan. (A side note: Falgione would be better-served by a production of Cabaret, in which her ability to find the humanity in a complex antiheroine character would be backed up by material that allows and encourages depth.)

The supporting cast has an easier job than the leading cast, as their roles are not as large and allow them to embrace Fitzgerald's surface sheen without needing to carry the ups and downs of drama for extended periods. Steve Gallagher makes a suitably menacing scumbag, his threats and seductions and proto-Nazi "race realist" ranting delivered in a low, intense monotone that drives home the banality of this character's low-level evil until he finally erupts in the hotel scene. Megan May and David Dickey are one step shy of caricature as poor New Yorkers Myrtle and George Wilson, both of whom wind up involved with Tom and his double-dealing. Both of them are comic relief characters until a plot twist in the second act leads them to be the centerpoint of unfolding drama. May excels more in the comedic than dramatic moments; Dickey the other way around. Finally, in a glorified cameo, Ron Siler-Waraszewski lends shades of The Godfather to his role as Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim. (Oddly enough, Levy's adaptation has made Tom's white-supremacist beliefs more prominent and central to his character, while downplaying Wolfsheim's implied alliance to the racist movement.)

Director Nicole Zalak has made some interesting choices: opening both acts with variations on the same dance number, once enjoyable and once more frenzied; staging the play's final moments in various locations simultaneously, almost close enough to touch each other; the use of an intentionally disruptive musical number in Act 1 which forces attention from the other leading roles. For a cast of varying experience levels like this, it's remarkable how well the amateurs have risen to the level of the professionals, especially in a peculiar, stylized play like the Levy Gatsby. Perhaps in the early 2020s, when the novel goes public domain, a great musical or straight adaptation will finally emerge that lives up to the book's titanic reputation. Until then, Levy's version, if not great, can sometimes be just the Good Gatsby.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan

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