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BWW Reviews: THE GREAT GATSBY is an Ambitious Undertaking at Bag & Baggage

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Present-day actors seem to have a hard time with period pieces. Perhaps they're so afraid of slipping into our modern, slangy cadences (like, y'know) that they treat dialogue from any decade earlier than the 1960s as if it were written in cement and had to be handled carefully. This happens even in movies and television, where you'd think the budget would allow for some research and a dialect coach or two. An entire evening spent listening to actors carefully pronouncing dialogue that should be rattled off like basic conversation can be deadly.

The Great Gatsby is considered one of the masterworks of American literature. Many, many people have tried and failed to adapt it for the movies and for theater, including a diastrous mess directed by Baz Luhrmann this past summer. Simon Levy's adaptation is actually a skillful condensation of the events and dialogue of the novel, stitched together with some narration, but this production isn't up to his writing, let alone Fitzgerald's. For most of the play, the actors are reading the lines ver-r-r-r-y slowly and articulating every consonant, when the lines should be rattled off like screwball-comedy dialogue. The early scenes, in particular, where the characters are lounging around and drinking, exchanging gossip and exposition, should be quick, but they're painful.

Director Scott Palmer seems to have put his energy into the physical aspects of the production, which are impressive. There's a simple black box with a scrim at the back, which adapts into any number of locations. The famous rack of shirts flies down from above, and a variety of set pieces are slid on and off by the cast. The scenes move fluidly, with quotations from the novel projected on the scrim between scenes. (I don't know if this is Palmer's idea or the playwright's, but it's terrific.) Projections are also used to set scene and mood, giving us wallpaper for a fancy hotel or balloons for a party scene. And the costumes are phenomenal; Melissa Heller either has a Hollywood budget or a lot of well-dressed friends, because every costume was perfect for the period and for the specific character. But it's all for naught when we can't get interested in the characters, even though most of us already know these characters well.

I won't call out the cast members individually for failing to breathe life into their roles. They all seem to be working from the same playbook. I will, however, praise Ian Armstrong, who plays Nick, the bystander/narrator of the piece. He alone seems to know how to wear his costume, to move and act as if the events are actually unfolding in front of him, and he has a wonderful Midwestern sound. He isn't merely saying lines, even when he's narrating the story; he's talking the way his character talks, and he's a delight to have around throughout the play. As Nick becomes more upset by the events around him, Armstrong very gradually lets loose of his voice, and when he finally explodes at the end, it's worth the wait.

If the entire production had been up to the level of Mr. Armstrong's performance and Ms. Heller's costumes, I'd be writing a rave. The show certainly looks wonderful, and the technical aspects are handled smoothly. More time should have been spent on making the audience feel something instead of giving them something to look at


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From This Author Patrick Brassell

Patrick Brassell is the author of five published novels and five produced plays. He has directed, produced, and designed sound for about fifty theater productions, (read more...)