Some great works of literature are challenging to read, even if you enjoy reading fiction. And sometimes an excellent film or play can introduce you to an enjoyable book or author you might not otherwise have happened upon.
But I'm afraid that the effect of Arizona Theatre Company's production of Simon Levy's adaptation The Great Gatsby might well be to disappoint you, if you're familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, or to deter you from reading a page-turning work that still deserves all the hype, if you aren't. (It's in the public domain in Australia, so you can check it out right now, unless you're planning to attend the play or Baz Luhrmann's upcoming film -- currently scheduled for a Christmas Day release -- and are concerned about plot spoilers.)
In addition to being an inherently, unavoidably, and nearly relentlessly sad story, this stage Gatsby is sad as a missed artistic opportunity: Many of the creative team's conscious choices combine to strip away a layer of intelligence and complexity from the original work and make it difficult for the audience to care sufficiently for any of the characters.
I'm not convinced that, for example, the theme of oppression (of women, the working class, people of color) resonates even as effectively in this stage version as it does on the page, let alone in an improved contemporary context. The show simply does too good a job of making us wonder why anyone ever admired or desired people like Daisy Buchanan, and you're left with a sense that the Lost Generation got exactly what they had coming.
While that conclusion's not antithetical to the novel's thrust, it seems to exist in isolation in this play, or at least in this mounting. The dreamy self-deception, the moments of genuine, optimistic romance, the coming-of-age transition from tolerance to cynicism -- all are nodded to but somehow ring hollow.
And these drawbacks may be nearly impossible to overcome, given the nature of the print Gatsby's subtle unfolding. There's an interesting explanation here of why this particular book is so hard to do justice to on stage or screen.
The cast is rather deft -- they're aware of their characters' nuances and are simply denied a milieu in which they can show them to good advantage. (The company's subscribers seem more diverted by what people paid for a summer rental or a bottle of Coke in 1922 than by what's going on.) In particular, Sofia Jean Gomez is powerful, sympathetic, and often funny as Daisy's pro golfer pal, Jordan Baker, and David Andrew Macdonald is a tall, handsome, utterly pathetic (in a good way) Jay Gatsby.
David Kay Mickelsen's costumes are both lovely and helpful, but the set is full of Weird Random Shit, and the turntable is used in depressingly unimaginative ways to facilitate changes in location.
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Most of this season from ATC has been marketable based on name recognition -- artists and/or titles that are known entertainment quantities to the demographic that can afford tickets nowadays -- and I've been grateful that at least about half of the shows also have supplied at least the option of provoking thought. But The Great Gatsby doesn't deliver on either potential scale.
The Great Gatsby continues through Sunday, April 8, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets are $32 to $69, with $10 student seats and rush discounts also available; click here or call 602-256-6995.
For something that is a completely amazeballs piece of stagecraft, check out a mini-revival of David Barker's one-man piece Dodging Bullets on Friday, April 6, and Saturday, April 7, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. For tickets, $15 and $20, click here or call 602-254-2151.