A Eunuch for All Seasons

Nick Carraway shoulders the weight of a great big theater. Could he just give a speech instead?

Twenty-eight thousand souls tromped through the new Guthrie Theater complex on its opening Sunday at the end of June, smudging their thumbprints on the picture windows and soiling the floor with their flip-flopped feet. One of the 28,000 was a middle-aged fellow in striped wool trousers and stylish glasses, worrying a cell phone in the middle of the entrance lobby. Roving visitors took no notice of the man, searching as they were for bathrooms, snacks, and the famed Bridge to Nowhere. It was either a tribute to Midwestern egalitarianism or cluelessness: Mere hours before the Guthrie's fireworks gala, director Joe Dowling could go unrecognized in the theater he built.

I thought of Dowling and his fabulous riverfront palace on opening night of The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway (Matthew Amendt) doesn't recognize Jay Gatsby (Lorenzo Pisoni) when he runs across him at the young baron's lawn party. But then no one else would, either. Gatsby, like Rosebud, lives as a cautionary fantasy, an American symbol of wealth and comeuppance. In other words, Fitzgerald fans may be unprepared to see Gatsby in the flesh wearing a form-fitting swimsuit, as we get him here. Skeptics may deride this maiden production as a safe choice, but it's a brave artist who dramatizes the book that devotees continue to call the Great American Novel.

After some opening oratory—more on that later—we meet Tom Buchanan (Erik Heger), bulling his way through another stultifying afternoon of leisure. Tom is the kind of fellow who murders your knuckles when you shake hands and asks if "anyone needs a refresher," when no one is holding a drink. He's handsome in the horse-faced fashion of American nobility and he brazenly takes calls from his mistress as if he has an equine-scale appendage. Wife Daisy (Heidi Armbruster, flittering and fluttering in Tennessee Williams mode) calls Tom "hulking," which Heger isn't. He has the pique to dress down a gas jockey (Mark Rhein), but when the time comes to shut up the gas jockey's faithless wife, Myrtle (Christina Baldwin), the actor throws a stage slap that misses by a foot.

The Coon Rapids senior prom, "Never Say Goodbye," onstage at the Guthrie
Michal Daniel
The Coon Rapids senior prom, "Never Say Goodbye," onstage at the Guthrie

It's not all Heger's fault if Tom feels smaller than life. For the space he has to fill—the Guthrie's new thrust stage—is enormous. In one crowd scene at the Gatsby mansion, a mob of 15 does its best to jitterbug and cheer. Yet from the balcony, it feels like watching six-on-six football at the Metrodome. (Confidential to Joe Dowling: Plan on budgeting for more extras.) An unintended effect of having all that real estate is that the actors seem even more isolated. It's the opposite of film blocking, where actors have to smell each other's egg-salad breath to stay in the same frame. Nick and Daisy speak intimately from 20 feet away.

It must have been tempting for set designer Thomas Lynch to clutter the stage with gilded statuary and mirrored tiles—the decorating equivalent of battling a silent dinner party by babbling about the Brangelina baby. Yet here, he's boldly done the opposite. Gatsby's French-style mansion is nothing more than a staircase. All the Buchanans' old money takes the minimal form of a mammoth chaise lounge.

Stripped of period furnishings, it's a strangely abstract world that Nick, Gatsby, and the treacherous Buchanans inhabit. Literary adaptor Simon Levy has kept the chatter about World War I and the booming bond market, yet this engaging show takes place in a fog of longing and regret. The actors move in slow motion from scene to scene, snapping to life on cue to play their part. Faced with the question of what The Great Gatsby has to say to the modern audience, adaptor Levy and director David Esbjornson seem to have gone with the default position: It's Timeless, with a capital T.

The instrument of that interpretation is good old Nick Carraway, the prissy conscience of the play. Intermittently, Amendt stands before a dimly lit backdrop philosophizing over the baleful tones of a foghorn. It's a little speechy—the script has Nick declaim without contractions—but then the bookends of the novel itself are ponderous, too. Ultimately, the Guthrie has turned Nick into the eternal naïf, the eunuch for all seasons. And so the show inadvertently pays tribute to another hapless local hero: Charlie Brown.

 
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