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Critic’s Notebook: A deeper meaning off-Broadway

Theatrical marathons, those all-day affairs adored by festival-trotting Europeans, are quietly staging a comeback in New York. Nothing as momentous as Peter Brook’s production of “The Mahabharata” or the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby” has landed. But “Gatz” and “Angels in America,” which combine for roughly 15 hours, are unquestionably two of the hottest events of the fall season.

One would think rear ends would be rising up in revolt. But a metropolitan lust for camping out has taken hold off-Broadway, where both these works are persuading audience members to turn off their smart phones for extended periods and surrender to fictional worlds whose scope and intelligence can’t be gobbled in fast-food gulps.

Broadway, by comparison, is stocked with trivial playthings, diversions quickly consumed and promptly forgotten at prices that encourage amnesia. Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz” and Signature Theatre Company’s new production of “Angels” have their shortcomings, but the contrast between their ambition and the limited reach of even relatively high-end commercial fare is striking. Producers may never go broke underestimating the stupidity of the American public, but those that refuse to underestimate the intelligence of average theatergoers are getting a chance to demonstrate that king size can sell.

A full-text rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” “Gatz” has become a brilliant and preposterous cult hit at the Public Theater. Part narration, part theatricalization, the work begins at 3 in the afternoon and ends around 11:15 at night, a schedule that includes two intermissions and a dinner break. Much of the show features Scott Shepherd reading from a paperback copy of an American classic that is distinguished by its cascade of crystalline sentences. Fitzgerald may not have been the greatest of our country’s first-rank storytellers, but he’s unrivaled as a prose stylist, and the music of “Gatsby” softens the labor of this endurance test.

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Not exactly a dramatization, “Gatz” takes place in a fluorescently generic warehouse that’s stocked with cartons and outdated computers that take forever to boot. While waiting for his desktop to start, Shepherd’s character begins reading “Gatsby,” and the words of Fitzgerald reverberate with a vibrant immediacy as co-workers inaudibly carry on the daily business.

Shepherd blurs into narrator Nick Carraway, not exactly becoming him but channeling his attitudes and demeanor. In due course, the actors playing the warehouse employees pick up dialogue of the other characters and even start vaguely resembling them through costume coincidences that become less accidental as this quasi audio-book erupts into full-blooded scenes.

There’s something purposefully subliminal in John Collins’ staging, as though the production wants to preserve as much as possible the imaginative space of reading and the singular pleasure of perfectly wrought descriptions. These characterizations, flickered into existence by a company of 13 actors, aren’t meant to be definitive but an enticement to our own dream-like conjuring.

I’ve been following the experimental path of ERS for more than 15 years, and my opinion of the company’s determinedly wacky performance pieces — low-tech Wooster Group collages laced with dry sophomoric humor — has wavered. “Cab Legs,” a wild dance-theater riff on Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke,” was an early delight. More recently, “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928),” presented at REDCAT in 2008, served slices of William Faulkner in a more raucous manner than the Fitzgerald banquet.

In some respects, “Gatz,” which has been making the domestic and international rounds since 2006 but is only now having its New York premiere, represents the fulfillment of the company’s aesthetic. The coherence of the overall vision — the deadpan acting daubed with just enough color not to become monotonous and the bleak workplace design concept providing an Edward Hopper-like background — is pitch perfect.

Which isn’t to say that the production earns its epic playing time of 6 hours, 15 minutes, not counting breaks. If “Gatz” unavoidably has the element of a stunt to it, it’s because a novel, no matter how ingeniously staged, is fundamentally at odds with the theater’s requirement of economy. Drama is undone by tangents. When momentum flags, audience members doze. (At any given point during my visit, about 5% of those around me had their eyes closed — just a respite to replenish stamina, not a chorus of condemnatory snoring.)

“Gatsby” is a strange book. I’ve read it several times, seen the movie, sat through the John Harbison opera, and yet for some reason, the plot is always new to me. I can never recall exactly how this complicated saga of Jazz Age swells unfolds. Part of this may have to do with the perfection of the prose, which can distract from a story organized as a puzzle.

ERS doesn’t illuminate Fitzgerald’s work with profound insight or originality of interpretation. “Gatsby” is a quintessentially American tale, and this message is pounded home by the author in the book’s somewhat overstated culminating sweep. What the production offers, beyond a fascinating limbo between the page and the stage, is an unabridged encounter with a masterpiece. Consider this a secular sacrament of literature, one demanding commitment and sacrifice from those passively participating. After clocking so many consecutive hours with the work, I can safely say I’ll never be fuzzy on its details again.

What energized me about this exhausting event was the ardor of ordinary civilians to undergo such a protracted cultural journey. That same attentive, gung-ho spirit was in evidence during my two-night submergence in Tony Kushner’s oceanic “Angels in America.” (There were single-day options, but one unbroken marathon a week is my limit.) Michael Greif’s scaled-down revival — the first in New York since the original Broadway staging — tries with mixed results to make “Angels” seem less towering.

A dedicated young cast that includes Zachary Quinto as Louis, Christian Borle as Prior and Zoe Kazan as Harper pitches the production directly to the current generation. These actors may not always be persuasive in their intellectual sparring, but they convey an intimate sense of being overwhelmed by the crises — AIDS, abandonment — the play’s Reagan era has left their characters ill-equipped to handle.

The audience’s hush at Signature’s Peter Norton Space was one of the most heartening sounds I’ve heard in a theater. Those in attendance — a blend of students, seniors and everything in between — gave themselves over to a drama that is verbose and unwieldy, secure in the faith that their concentration would be rewarded with enlightenment.

Does anybody go to Broadway anymore with such confidence? But then commercial producers seem intent on outfoxing rather than satisfying their customers.

Marquee names in tired titles (such as Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in “Driving Miss Daisy”), familiar characters ( Pee-wee Herman, welcome aboard!) and cherished music catalogs (pick your baby boomer band) encourage on-line purchases. Yet the public can’t be fooled forever. If the big shots in charge of presenting work on Broadway would look into the eyes of those about to commence their “Gatz” and “Angels” pilgrimages, they might finally realize that today’s theatergoers are starving for something more than empty calories.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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