ARI SHAPIRO, host:
F. Scotts Fitzgeralds novel "The Great Gatsby" has captured the American imagination since it was first published in 1925. The flamboyant story has been adapted for film, stage, television, ballet and even opera. Now one ambitious New York theater company has decided to put every word of the novel onstage. It's a six-and-half-hour adaptation that has been getting rave reviews.
Jeff Lunden has our story.
JEFF LUNDEN: When the audience walks into the Martinson Theatre, the set onstage doesnt even vaguely evoke F. Scott Fitzgeralds Jazz Age. Its 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 unsuccessfully to boot up that computer, several times. Then, with a shrug, he pulls out a paperback copy of "The Great Gatsby" and starts reading it, aloud.
(Soundbite of play, "Gatz")
Mr. SCOTT SHEPHERD (Actor): (as character) In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that Ive been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world havent had the advantages that youve had.
LUDDEN: 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.
Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Theater Critic, The New York Times): It doesnt sound like innately dramatic material, does it? Reading one thinks of as a passive activity. But this is a truly dynamic work. And it somehow finds a theatrical form for the very private act of reading.
LUDDEN: 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.
Mr. JOHN COLLINS (Director, Elevator Repair Service): 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 didnt present any kind of obvious way to become a play.
LUDDEN: When one of their company members suggested adapting "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgeralds keen-eyed look at the American Dream and its flip side, they leapt at the opportunity. As they started exploring ways to bring the novel to life, they rehearsed in a dingy office in downtown New York, a lot like the one onstage.
Mr. COLLINS: 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 doesnt make much money. It had resonance with the book but it also was just, for me, a kind of mysterious canvas on which to project the book.
LUDDEN: 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 Wilsons love nest, are happening in the middle of the office, with paper and plastic cups flying everywhere.
(Soundbite of play, "Gatz")
Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) I like your dress.
Mr. SHEPHERD: (as character) Remarked Mrs. McKee.
Unidentified Woman: (as character) I think its adorable.
Mr. SHEPHERD: (as character) Mrs. Wilson rejected the compliment by raising her eyebrow in disdain.
Unidentified Woman: (as character) Its just a crazy old thing.
Mr. SHEPHERD: (as character) She said.
Unidentified Woman: (as character) I just slip it on sometimes, when I dont care what I look like.
LUDDEN: Director John Collins had never read the novel before he started work on the show.
Mr. COLLINS: 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.
LUDDEN: And so the decision was made, early on, to use every word. Scott Shepherd, as the narrator, says most of them.
Mr. SHEPHERD: Ive never run a marathon...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEPHERD: ...but maybe its kind of a similar thing. I mean, what it is, is its too big, too long to hold in your head at once, or to even really conceive of or think about or prepare for. At least I dont know how to prepare for it. But all I know how to do is to go out there and open the book and start.
LUDDEN: Here he describes meeting the seductive and doomed Jay Gatsby, for the first time.
(Soundbite of play, "Gatz")
Mr. SHEPHERD: (as character) He smiled understandingly, much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you, with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.
LUDDEN: Critic Ben Brantley.
Mr. BRANTLEY: Scott Shepherd is amazing. He gives a performance that's very specific, that is taken over by the book, thats defined by the book. And at the same time, he remains the universal reader, the constant reader. And Ive never seen a balancing act quite like that in theater.
LUDDEN: By the final hour of the play, the book has been set aside and Scott Shepherd is Nick.
Mr. SHEPHERD: (as character) Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but thats no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And one fine morning, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
LUDDEN: "Gatz" is playing at New Yorks Public Theater through November 28th.
For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.