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Channeling ‘Gatsby,’ word by word, hour by hour

Scott Shepherd (Nick) and Kate Scelsa (Lucille) in Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz.’’ Scott Shepherd (Nick) and Kate Scelsa (Lucille) in Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz.’’ (Chris Beirens)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / January 3, 2010

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NEW YORK - “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since . . .’’

Five years ago, the New York experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service staged an audacious workshop production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby.’’ Not a word of the original text was excised. Every descriptive passage, every evocative detail, every “he said’’ and “she thought’’ was uttered verbatim. The piece, called “Gatz,’’ ran an epic 6 1/2 hours.

In the show, a man in a dreary, dilapidated office begins reading a paperback version of “Gatsby’’ aloud and doesn’t stop until the lives of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, and Nick Carraway reach their tragic culmination.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’’

The unpublicized workshop became an underground phenomenon, attracting industry luminaries to the Wooster Group’s Performing Garage in SoHo. But before Elevator Repair Service could capitalize on its blazing-hot word of mouth to stage a full-scale production, the Fitz gerald estate put a stop to the workshop and told the company it could not perform the show in New York. The estate was concerned about the impact of “Gatz’’ on a more traditional stage adaptation of the novel that was aiming for Broadway.

Since then, “Gatz’’ has become something of a cult legend, with an aura that oddly echoes the mythology surrounding the enigmatic millionaire at the center of “The Great Gatsby.’’ Elevator Repair Service has mounted the show around the world, including Brussels, Amsterdam, Dublin, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But it’s mostly been seen in short, weeklong engagements, for a total of only about 50 performances.

Now Boston-area audiences will have a rare chance to catch “Gatz’’ when it begins a month-long run at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center on Thursday. (Marathon performances will run 7 1/2 hours, including a one-hour dinner break and two intermissions. On many dates, theatergoers can choose to split the production across two nights.)

Set inside a shabby, rundown small business, complete with desks, file cabinets, and old computers, “Gatz’’ begins when an office worker finds an old copy of “Gatsby’’ and starts reading it aloud. Soon the book exerts a strange force on his fellow employees: Small coincidences crop up, as incidents in the novel mirror action in the office.

Before long, workers start inhabiting the characters from the novel’s glittering world, and everyday objects become props in the story. A desk chair serves as Gatsby’s roadster. Liquor bottles materialize from file cabinets during a wild party scene. Yet every so often, the reality of office life reasserts itself. Someone turns on an overhead fluorescent light or delivers a stack of papers.

The staging echoes the theme of the book, according to Elevator Repair Service.

“One of the central ideas of the book is that a person can make this magnificent identity out of nothing and can overcome where they came from in some way. However, the elements of who you really are keep pulling you back,’’ says Scott Shepherd, the ensemble member who plays Nick, the narrator in “Gatz.’’ “That friction between the office reality and the reality being described is where the creative juice comes from.’’

During a recent interview at Shepherd’s SoHo loft, Shepherd and John Collins, Elevator Repair Service’s artistic director and founder, are alternately cerebral and playful while talking about “Gatz,’’ a labor of love that they began working on in 1999. Collins says that because they are an experimental company, the ideas that tend to stick with them are ones “that present some exciting problem to solve.’’

With Fitzgerald’s novel, “we realized that it presented us with this huge problem of being a novel, but not being the right kind of writing for the stage,’’ says Collins, 40. “And that’s when we hit on this idea of: Well, let’s just not edit it. What happens if you just put a novel onstage exactly as it is? What kind of theater can you make around that?

“I really liked anything that felt a little bit impossible. Even if it didn’t seem like we were really going to be able to achieve it, even if there were lots of reasons to be skeptical about whether we could pull it off, it felt like a good mode to be working in. And I hated the thought of never trying it.’’

Maverick comedian Andy Kaufman used to read “The Great Gatsby’’ aloud in his stand-up days, perhaps tweaking audiences who longed to see him perform as Latka, his famed TV character on “Taxi.’’ Kaufman would go on and on, and when viewers would finally revolt by heckling, throwing dinner rolls, or walking out, he might break down and cry - or offer to play a record instead, then cue up a disc of him reading “Gatsby’’ exactly where he had left off.

Elevator Repair Service knew all about Kaufman’s stunt. After all, the company had done an entire production about the comedian’s strange career. But once it took on the project, the company found that what was most affecting about the novel was the writing itself - the evocative nature of the language, the poetic rhythms of the sentences.

“Whenever we cut a few words from a passage of dialogue, whenever we cut a little bit of narration in between spoken lines, it just felt wrong,’’ Collins says. “It felt like we had hurt something. It felt like we were then working with less than we started with.’’

Shepherd agrees. “Every time you tried to transform it into something more theatrical, it lost power,’’ says Shepherd, 41, who has memorized the entire novel. “That’s what excited me about it. If we’re going to use this novel, we have to fetishize the book itself, the language itself.’’

An idiosyncratic, free-form, and collaborative approach to creating work has defined the company since Collins and friends founded it in 1991. Now revered in downtown theater circles, Elevator Repair Service has been influenced by the visionary New York director Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group, both of whom Collins works with as a sound designer.

“Gatz’’ is perhaps the company’s most famous work to date (it’s also the biggest, with a cast of 13). Other unorthodox, mischievous mind-benders include a piece inspired by Euripides’s “The Bacchae,’’ featuring a metal thermos with googly eyeballs as a stand-in for Dionysus (“Highway to Tomorrow’’); a re-creation of bygone television interviews with Beat legend Jack Kerouac using the actual transcripts (“No Great Society’’); and an attempted reconstruction of Salvador Dalí’s long-lost, never-produced screenplay for the Marx Brothers (“Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad’’). The company’s acclaimed off-Broadway debut in 2008 was “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)’’ - a version of the first section from William Faulkner’s masterpiece.

Elevator Repair Service eschews mission statements, mantras, and even employing certain theater-making methods from one show to the next.

“As soon as I begin to recognize and name anything that we’re doing, that becomes a thing to not do anymore,’’ says Collins.

Adds Shepherd, “You have to be real dedicated to the idea of not having a method. Because it means you’ve got to spend some unpleasant time not knowing what to do.’’

To maintain a fresh approach, says Collins, the troupe members keep trying to invent new and different experiments for themselves.

“Part of it is just a willingness to try a bunch of stuff that’s going to fail - and to get excited about those failures. As long as you allow the process enough time, and the people are familiar with each other, and there’s a kind of openness about the whole process, then it doesn’t matter if your first six ideas completely fail. They’re going to generate new ideas and point you in some worthwhile direction,’’ says Collins. “I hate to think what ‘Gatz’ would look like now if we had pursued some of our very first ideas for it, rather than allowing ourselves to discover what we were doing as we went along.’’

For the audience, “Gatz’’ is a chance to rediscover a classic that most people probably haven’t picked up since high school. And what they find might just astonish them.

“One thing that we encounter a lot with this show is that a lot of people think they know this book,’’ says Collins. “They think of it as this definitive portrait of the Jazz Age. So they associate it with costumes and music and the Charleston and a big, gaudy mansion. Because of all that, people lose an understanding of what’s really great about the novel, which is the writing and the more truthful revelations that come from the narrator about himself.’’

After all the twists and turns for “Gatz,’’ Elevator Repair Service just got one more surprise. After years in which the Fitzgerald estate has prevented the company from staging a full production of “Gatz’’ in New York, Collins says the estate recently told him it would allow one next fall. (He says he’s heard rumors the other stage version, an adaptation called “The Great Gatsby’’ by Simon Levy that has already seen incarnations in Minneapolis and Seattle, could be aiming for a London run in the near future.)

“From our perspective, we just have this thing we really want to do, that we think is worth doing, and that everyone should see. Everybody is so curious about it and wants to know what it’s all about,’’ says Collins. “But with just about anything we’ve done involving this show, it’s taken patience and persistence.’’

It’s the same kind of patience that will be required for theatergoers tackling all 7 1/2 hours of the “Gatz’’ marathon - and who could be rewarded with a transformative theatrical experience.

GATZ Play by Elevator Repair Service, presented by American Repertory Theatre. Jan. 7 through Feb. 7. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Tickets: $25-$75. 617-547-8300, www.amrep.org

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