This has been a weekend for relationship problems. Earlier this morning I wrote about some relationships in flux in Atlanta in 1973; these were portrayed on stage in “What I Learned In Paris” at the Colony Theatre. This afternoon we saw more relationship problems — this time in the 1920s in New York — when we saw the Los Angeles Premier of “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East Playhouse (REP East) (FB) in Newhall.†
I’d been roughly familiar with The Great Gatsby before: I knew of the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (but had never read it); I knew of the two movie versions of the story (but had never seen them); and I used to work next to a restaurant called Gatsby’s in Brentwood (but never ate there). I knew it was about the decadence of the 1920s, and that it concerned a relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. But that’s about all I knew.
As a result, as I sat through the show, I found myself hindered by the confusing exposition and relationships. I liked the characters and the performances, but the story left me cold. Discussing the show on the way home I discovered that was partially the intent: to show the decadence and how there was coldness behind it. I also read the Wikipedia page with the summary of the story, and it very very closely matched what was on stage. I opine that this show will be received at little better by those with a passing familiarity with the Gatsby story — be it from the book, the movies, or even the Wikipedia version :-). That’s not to say that the show wasn’t enjoyable — it was — just that a little more familiarity would have helped (I can’t fault the writer or those who adapted it for the stage, as they followed the original story; rather, I think there is so much meaning behind the elements of the story that the presentation would be enhanced with an understanding of those elements).
The adaption of the story was by Simon Levy, the producing director for the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. It was first produced at the Guthrie Theatre in MN; it had its West Coast premier at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. This production was the Los Angeles premier — it is great to see REP reaching the stature where it brings new plays to Los Angeles.
So what is the story behind Gatsby? Wikipedia summarizes the story as follows (condensed a little), and this is essentially what is portrayed on stage:
The story takes place in the summer of 1922. Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate and World War I veteran from the Midwest – who serves as the novel’s narrator – takes a job in New York as a bond salesman. He rents a small house on Long Island, in the (fictional) village of West Egg, next door to the lavish mansion of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who holds extravagant parties but does not participate in them. Nick drives around the bay for dinner at the home of his cousin, Daisy Fay Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, a college acquaintance of Nick’s. They introduce Nick to Jordan Baker, an attractive, cynical young golfer with whom Nick begins a romantic relationship. She reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Not long after this revelation, Nick travels to New York City with Tom and Myrtle to an apartment they keep for their affair. At the apartment, a vulgar and bizarre party takes place. It ends with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose after she annoys him by saying Daisy’s name several times. As the summer progresses, Nick eventually receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties. Nick encounters Jordan Baker at the party, and they meet Gatsby himself, an aloof and surprisingly young man who recognizes Nick from their same division in the war. Through Jordan, Nick later learns that Gatsby knew Daisy from a romantic encounter in 1917 and is deeply in love with her. He spends many nights staring at the green light at the end of her dock, across the bay from his mansion, hoping to one day rekindle their lost romance. Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle and wild parties are an attempt to impress Daisy in the hope that she will one day appear again at Gatsby’s doorstep. Gatsby now wants Nick to arrange a reunion between himself and Daisy. Nick invites Daisy to have tea at his house, without telling her that Gatsby will also be there. After an initially awkward reunion, Gatsby and Daisy reestablish their connection. They begin an affair and, after a short time, Tom grows increasingly suspicious of his wife’s relationship with Gatsby. At a luncheon at the Buchanans’ house, Daisy speaks to Gatsby with such undisguised intimacy that Tom realizes she is in love with Gatsby. Though Tom is himself involved in an extramarital affair, he is outraged by his wife’s infidelity. He forces the group to drive into New York City and confronts Gatsby in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, asserting that he and Daisy have a history that Gatsby could never understand. In addition to that, he announces to his wife that Gatsby is a criminal whose fortune comes from bootlegging alcohol and other illegal activities. Daisy realizes that her allegiance is to Tom, and Tom contemptuously sends her back to East Egg with Gatsby, attempting to prove that Gatsby cannot hurt him. On the way home, Nick, Jordan, and Tom discover that Gatsby’s car has struck and killed Tom’s mistress, Myrtle. Nick later learns from Gatsby that Daisy, not Gatsby himself, was driving the car at the time of the accident but Gatsby intends to take the blame anyway. Myrtle’s husband, George, falsely concludes that the driver of the yellow car is the secret lover he recently began suspecting she has, and sets out on foot to locate its owner. After finding out the yellow car is Gatsby’s, he arrives at Gatsby’s mansion where he fatally shoots both Gatsby and then himself. Nick stages an unsettlingly small funeral for Gatsby, ends his relationship with Jordan, and moves back to the Midwest, disillusioned with the Eastern lifestyle.
The performances of the actors were very good; the direction of co-directors Ovington Michael Owston (FB) and Christopher Chase (FB) worked well to bring realistic performances, although at times there was a little confusion as to what action was where. In the lead positions were Dennis Hadley (FB) as Jay Gatsby and Carole Catanzaro (FB) as Daisy Buchanan. Hadley was affable and gave off the ambiance of the well-to-do well; Daisy seemed appropriately self-centered and not really invested in any relationship — or to put it another way, in whichever relationship could move her forward. It was interesting to contrast Daisy with Ann in the Colony play. Both were torn between two men — one that loved them madly but wasn’t their spouse, and their spouse who was somewhat indifferent to them. The resolutions were very different, but the situations similar. Completing the love triangle was Dustin Emery as Tom Buchanan. Emery’s Buchanan gave off the appropriate violent menace required for the character. Emery played the character in a way that made it clear he did not love Daisy, but had a strong physical (but not necessarily emotional attraction) to his mistress. A friend of ours opined the similarity between Buchanan, a sports hero in the story, and certain characters in the NFL today.
Although I hesitate to call them supporting as they were critical to the action (but supporting in the sense of who you remember) were Cole Shoemaker as Nick Carraway and Alli Kelly (FB) as Jordan Baker. Shoemaker’s Carraway had a bit of cold indifference, but when you consider he was the narrator of the story that is less surprising. At times, I found his exposition a bit hard to follow, but in general I liked his performance as the character. Kelly’s Baker was fun to watch — she had these odd sardonic facial expressions at just the right moment.
Rounding out the cast were Amber Schwinn (FB) as Myrtle Wilson, Jeremiah Lowder/FB as George Wilson, John Lucewich (FB) as Chester McKee, Julie Henderson (FB) as Lucille McKee, and Brent Christensen (FB) as Myer Wolfsheim. Amber was great as Myrtle Wilson, capturing the distaste for her husband and her desire for Tom well; she also plays dead great :-). Lowder captured the mechanic nature of George Wilson well, but otherwise was written superficially. Lastly, I never quite understood Wolfsheim as his character was never given a good explanation; but Brent played him well.
Turning to the technical side. Sound and lights were by the usual REP suspects: Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB on sound and Tim Christianson/FB on lights. Both worked well. The set design was by Ovington Michael Owston (FB) and did a reasonable job of establishing place and era; this was aided by the projections by Mikee Schwinn/FB. Costumes were by Janet McAnany (FB) and seemed reasonably flapper era — plus the suits that she chose for Gatsby were spectacular. Jeffrey Hampton/FB was the production stage manager. “The Great Gatsby” was produced by Mikee Schwinn/FB and Ovington Michael Owston (FB).
Although there is no printed announcement, Repertory East (FB) has announced their 2015 season: “Avenue Q“, “Doubt“, “Dinner with Friends“, “Jesus Christ Superstar“, “Diviners” and “Deathtrap“. Specific performance dates and season subscription information should be available at the next REP show, “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventures of the Suicide Club“, starting November 14.
[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: October currently has two shows (three if you count Yom Kippur on 10/4): “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” at the Group Rep (FB) on Sat 10/18 (when Karen is at PIQF), and “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB) on 10/25. November is back to busy, with “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB) on Sat 11/1, “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sun 11/9 (shifting to avoid ACSAC and opening night), a trip out to Orange Empire Railway Museum to see my buddy Thomas on 11/11, “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB) on Sat 11/15, the Nottingham Festival on Sun 11/16, and “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB) on Sat 11/29. I may also see some theatre when I visit my daughter Erin in Berkeley between 11/20 and 11/26. Right now, I’m looking at “The Immigrant“ at Tabard Theatre (FB) in San Jose, “Harvey” at Palo Alto Players (FB) in Palo Alto, or “Rhinocerous” at the UC Berkeley Theatre Department (FB). As for December, right now I’m just holding one date: “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.
†: Plus I did something to upset my wife (although not intentional), starting with not going to her backup restaurant when there was a 90 minute wait at our primary restaurant because there was nothing that looked appealing to eat. Following that, I was less then enthused when we went to an art show/pow-wow after the show (when I had load and loads of stuff to do at home). I’ve apologized, but I’m probably in the doghouse for a while. Back to cooking dinner, for example….