THEATER REVIEW: Gatsby Not Quite Great
War hero and wealthy, host of lavish parties in his nouveau riche Long Island mansion, Jay Gatsby is surrounded by swirling rumors. Is he really the child of privilege he claims to be? An “Oxford man,” who calls even new acquaintances and vicious personal foes “Old Sport”?
Has Gatsby really “killed a man,” as people whisper? (A silly thing to wonder about a decorated combat veteran, the commander of a machine gun crew in The War – WW I, that is.)
Who is the shady Meyer Wolfsheim, who haunts Gatsby’s parties, and whose influence seems commanding?
Again and again and again: whence Gatsby’s money?
And how did his past intersect the lives of one particular household across the Sound?
Nasty, brutish and tall; handsome, well-born and bigoted; Yalie Tom Buchanan is idly rich and comes from unimpeachable antecedents. His wife Daisy Buchanan is a Southern debutante, a young mother prone to hysteria who grudgingly turns a blind eye to Tom’s affairs. Both drink rather heavily.
Daisy’s distant cousin, another war veteran and Toms’ schoolmate at Yale, the relatively impoverished – or at least not wealthy – Nick Carraway is the Buchanan’s temporary next-door neighbor, narrator and catalyst to much of the plot of the play now on the Wells Theatre stage.
In such broad, almost crayoned strokes, Simon Levy has adapted, and Virginia Stage Company produced under Chris Hanna’s direction, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of love deferred, The Great Gatsby.
It’s unquestionably a good looking production. Sets (scenery by Tim Macabee and projections, Shawn Duan), lighting (John Ambrosone) and costumes (Jeni Schaeffer) are all fine, though why the huge image of spectacle frames is several times projected onto the background remains inexplicable, or at least puzzling. Jennifer Lent’s choreography is quite effective and attractive. Sounds good, too (Will McCandless).
Jay Gatsby’s essential backstory, the propulsive romantic crux of his personal history, “was old when Methuselah was teething,” to quote James Branch Cabell, who wrote in a different context well before Fitzgerald penned Gatsby. That history, and the events that cascade after Nick arrives in Long Island, are all clearly related here, but there’s really not much to this production but plot and window dressing.
Superficial but worthwhile themes such as hypocrisy (consuming alcohol during prohibition but maligning bootleggers), partner abuse, sexism, imbalance of power in marriage, and the like are barely touched on.
Consideration of more profound but openly evident ideas such as identity and its origins, image and self image, reality and the illusion of reality doesn’t even get a foot in the door.
Few characterizations go beyond epidermal depth. Ian Holcomb does bring a convincing sincerity to his portrayal of Carraway, but veers briefly awry, into a gnash-and-grimace style, in his closing monologue. That’s doubtless not his fault, but that of this writer’s valued and rightly respected friend, the director, and up until then Holcomb is at the top of this cast.
Michael Shantz makes quite a good impression as Gatsby. Shantz’s ability to connect with others on the stage, both as a character and as an actor, emphasizes that Gatsby’s variably heightened or impeded ability to make emotional connections is a key to his personality.
David Meadows and Sylvie Green Shapero, two locally rooted performers, acquit themselves admirably, giving their supporting but crucial roles every bit as much definition and dimension as the script provided. (The same cannot be said of all their companions on the stage.)
The Great Gatsby is polished, smoothly staged, slick as a Roaring 20s haircut and surely possessed of the potential to move an audience deeply. That potential just is not realized. The show is detached, without a true soul, as if its emotional content were digitized and displayed as a graph.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted by Simon Levy
Through Oct. 6
Virginia Stage Company