When a literary classic is adapted for the stage there is a concern that the essence and texture of the work will be lost, since the adaptor’s mission is different from that of the novelist, the theater is a different form of storytelling than the printed page .
For example, how can an author capture the brilliance and elegant coherence of a work so carefully composed and so universally known and acclaimed as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?
Several screenwriters failed, although the 1974 film, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Sam Waterson and Karen Black, is an achievement that I think would have been more praised if Clayton had changed the title and said said his film was suggested by The Great Gatsby.
Simon Levy, whose rendition of The Great Gatsby runs at the Princeton Summer Theater until Sunday July 3, deftly finds the solution with a script that lacks the bubble and taut bliss of Fitzgerald’s opus, but thorough and captivating is the task of telling its basic story with enough texture and detail to provide a glimpse into “Gatsby’s” romantic core, its emphasis on status and identity, and a look at people of different persuasions during the pre-depression transition, referred to as the Prohibition Era, possibly because of Fitzgerald, the Jazz Age.
Director Ethan Boll capitalizes on Levy’s cleverness with a production that is always interesting, aptly commenting on the vagaries of love, the honesty of feelings and how much reality counts compared to what an individual has to offer over the long haul.
Through the eyes and talent of Levy and Boll, Summer Theater audiences learn about Fitzgerald’s characters in great detail, the blended weaknesses and humanity of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan contrasting sharply with the simplicity of Myrtle and George Wilson, the cool, thoughtful Observation by Nick Carraway, and especially the old school, old tie code by Tom Buchanan.
Boll’s cast ranges from a highly professional and polished twist – Robby Keown as Tom – to an ephemeral and stylized but strikingly effective performance – Allison Spann as Daisy Buchanan – to a softly nuanced, softly spoken approach – Jay White as Nick Carraway. Also in this somewhat intertwined jumble of acting techniques is the bold, Harridan-esque performance of Violet Gautreau as the well-dressed but husky-voiced Myrtle and the gentle, sympathetic performance of Devin Lee as George.
Rather than confusing, this mélange seems to help make each character distinctive and define his or her role in the story Fitzgerald is telling. Boll adds the suitably refined and slightly chilled performance of Megan Pan as golf pro/socialite Jordan Baker and the benevolent but ingratiating way Xavier Jefferson brings to Gatsby, and has his squad create a salad of disparate techniques that add up to a believable one Combining an image from a recording Place, time and situation. Miquon Jackson and Ally Wolski do well in a variety of small roles.
It makes no difference if one actor is more skilled or more accomplished than another. The elevated style of Keown, Spann and Gautreau goes well with the serious and coordinated performances of White, Lee and Jefferson. The triumph is that even an audience unfamiliar with every detail of The Great Gatsby is entertained and captivated by the book’s twists and the diversity of its characters.
Levy’s screenplay is particularly astute in showing Gatsby’s wartime experiences and the intimate bond between him and Daisy before Gatsby went abroad as a soldier and Daisy, fearing he would never return and might not remember her, married Tom Buchanan.
These details are of course relevant to any The Great Gatsby narrative, but usually they seem to be two of countless elements and threads to follow when reading Fitzgerald or watching film versions of Gatsby. In Boll’s production they deliver, as they should, the heart of the drama, the various other plots, such as Tom’s play with Myrtle or Jordan and Nick’s attempt at a relationship, are secondary to Gatsby and Daisy’s attraction and affection for one another.
Bringing Gatsby and Daisy’s intricately tormented relationship to the fore in a way that is steeped in apparent love gives Levy’s script and Boll’s direction a strong foundation. Everything else that happens provides commentary contrasts and textures that reinforce the ultimate focus on Gatsby and Daisy. The play and production become a tale of a beautiful but doomed romance rather than a study of an enigmatic title character, and they benefit from that focus.
Boll finds a different way to bring texture and lightness to his production. Before Jeffrey Van Velsor’s various fences, furniture, signs and defining set pieces appear, a band led by Ned Furlong and featuring Paolo Montoya, Henry Baker and Cliff Wilson treated the assembled audience to music more 1930s and 40s than out of date this is Fitzgerald’s 1922 but fortunate in its selection of great tunes from the American songbook including one of my personal favourites, Bert Kalmar and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” sung with excellent style and meaning at one point Phrasing of Allison Spann as Daisy.
Spann starts singing several times during Boll’s production, and it’s a gift every time she does. Spann’s handling of lyrics is so intelligent and her range so smooth and effortless that I’d love to see her return to Princeton or anywhere else for a packed cabaret night.
The best part about throwing in Spann’s vocals and several instances where the band delivers a number when scenes change is that they become delightful interludes rather than odd interruptions that make you wonder what a director is up to makes sense.
Spann also wins with her outspoken approach to Daisy, which conveys whimsy while revealing Daisy’s depth, doubt and confusion about what to do about Gatsby and her husband Tom.
Watching Spann is like watching a heroine from Tennessee Williams. I can picture her as Blanche DuBois, the Countess Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth, or Maxine in The Night of the Iguana. Daisy is from the South, and Spann is smart enough to add just enough touches to convey that as her Daisy spins enthusiastically on stage when she’s not paralyzed by the weight of the decision she believes she is she is asked to meet them.
Robby Keown is a solid actor as you will find. His Tom is a living monument to the successful and traditional, if not exactly sophisticated, turn-of-the-century American man portrayed in novels beyond The Great Gatsby. Even his apronism and drinking fit that impression, and Keown is adept at acknowledging Tom’s flaws while emphasizing his confidence, self-righteousness, and old-fashioned patterns.
Jay White never ceases to be the keen observer that Nick Carraway needs to be as the narrator of Fitzgerald’s story. Even when he is not the focus of a scene, White can be seen studying a conversation or encounter as it takes place. Violet Gautreau is a cyclone of a despised woman like Myrtle, who is always vocal about attention and her expected place in Tom’s life.
The Great Gatsby, Hamilton Murray Theatre, Princeton University (walk entrance across from Labyrinth Books). Until Sunday 3 July. 8pm Thursday to Saturday and 2pm Saturday and Sunday. $34.50. www.princetonsummertheater.org or 732-997-0205.