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Great American Novel Gets Unique Stage Treatment

Narrator Scott Shepherd (center) reads 'The Great Gatsby' aloud as a party scene is acted out during a performance of 'Gatz" at New York's Public Theater.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' is read aloud - and acted out - over more than 6 hours

F. Scott's Fitzgerald's novel, "The Great Gatsby," has captured the American imagination since its publication in 1925.

The flamboyant story of the fallibility of the American dream has been adapted for film, stage, television and even opera. But one ambitious New York theater company has decided to put every word of the novel onstage, in a more than six-hour adaptation that's been getting rave reviews.

When the audience walks into the Public Theater, the set onstage doesn't even vaguely evoke the jazz age of the 1920s in which F. Scott Fitzgerald set his story. It's the drabbest office imaginable; grey walls, beat-up furniture, an ancient computer, a manual typewriter. As the play begins, a man in a blue shirt walks in and tries to turn on that computer, several times, unsuccessfully. Then, with a shrug, he pulls out a paperback copy of "The Great Gatsby" and starts reading it, aloud.

And for the next six and a half hours - plus two intermissions and a dinner break - the audience is transported into the world of "The Great Gatsby," as all the workers in this mysterious office bring the novel to vivid life. And, somehow, over the course of the play, that guy in the blue shirt becomes Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book, friend and confidant to self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby. The show is called "Gatz" and when New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley saw it in Cambridge, Massachusetts earlier this year, he called it improbable and exciting.

In 'Gatz,' the audience is transported into the world of 'The Great Gatsby,' as workers in a mysterious office bring the novel to vivid life.
In 'Gatz,' the audience is transported into the world of 'The Great Gatsby,' as workers in a mysterious office bring the novel to vivid life.

"It doesn't sound like innately dramatic material, does it? Reading, one thinks of as a passive activity," said Brantley. "But this is a truly dynamic work. And it somehow finds a theatrical form for the very private act of reading."

For the past 19 years, John Collins has directed every production of the experimental theater group, Elevator Repair Service. He says creating theater out of the improbable is a fundamental part of their mission.

"We like things that give us some sort of problem to solve. And that eventually became a kind of obsession with doing things that were wrong for the theater. You know, we liked material that didn't present any kind of obvious way to become a play."

When one of their company members suggested adapting "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald's keen-eyed look at the American dream and its flip side, they leapt at the chance. As they started exploring ways to bring the novel to life, rehearsing in a dingy office in downtown Manhattan, a lot like the one onstage.

"There was a certain resonance in a dumpy little office. I mean, Nick, in the book, has a kind of humble job as a bond salesman and talks about how he doesn't make much money," says Collins. "It had resonance with the book, but it also was just, for me, a kind of mysterious canvas on which to project the book."

So, as the guy in the blue shirt reads the novel, office workers drift in and out, doing their tasks - delivering memos, picking up mail - and they begin to subtly resemble the characters in the novel. Somewhere in the first 20 minutes, the worker who becomes Tom Buchanan blurts out a line of dialogue. And before you know it, scenes from "The Great Gatsby," like the drunken party in Myrtle Wilson's love nest, are happening in the middle of the office, with paper and plastic cups flying everywhere.

Collins had never read the novel before he directed the show.

"I was surprised at how contemporary it felt, and I was surprised at, you know, how efficient, yet lyrical it was. You know, it was like a perfect poem. I remember thinking that every word felt necessary."

And so the decision was made, early on, to use every word. Scott Shepherd, as the narrator, says most of them.

"I've never run a marathon but maybe it's kind of a similar thing. I mean, what it is, is it's too big, too long to hold in your head at once or to even really conceive of or think about or prepare for," says Shepherd. "At least, I don't know how to prepare for it. But, all I know how to do is to go out there and open the book and start."

By the final hour of the play, the book has been set aside and Scott Shepherd is Nick.

"Gatz" is playing at New York's Public Theater through November 28.