Irving — A fresh-faced and enthusiastic cast sweeps onto the large proscenium stage, laughing and dancing to Jazz Age sounds, wing-tips tapping, and fringed flapper gowns swaying to the frenetic rhythm of the Charleston in the opening scene of The Great Gatsby, Simon Levy’s adroit adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famed 1922 novel, directed by Wheelice Wilson, Jr., for Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas.
The novel’s depiction of the seductive glamour of wealth during Prohibition, and the amoral personalities of the men and women living in opulent mansions and throwing decadent parties, was drawn from Fitzgerald’s youthful experience pursuing the heiress Zelda among the nouveau riche and old money ensconced on Long Island in the ’20s.
The book has come to define our notions of Jazz Age culture in America, as it continues to be assigned to high school and college students to this day. Artists and audiences alike love to revisit a classic. There have been seven film adaptations of the novel, most recently the popular 2013 version with Leonardo DiCaprio; two musical versions; one opera produced by the Met; and a number of radio productions. Levy’s adaptation, which premiered at the Guthrie Theater in 2006, completed his trilogy of stage versions of Fitzgerald’s work, including Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon. Since then, Levy’s adaptation has appeared regularly in repertory and community theaters nationally, including a 2014 production at Garland Civic Theatre.
Before the dancers can vanish into party heaven, narrator Nick Carraway (a wry, writerly Adam Kullman) walks onto the stage wearing a snazzy blue suit and a subdued smile. He opens the play with the first lines of the novel, introducing himself and his haunting, enigmatic title character—long before we see the mysterious man Nick finds so compelling.
Set designer Jeffrey Franks’ huge projections on the back scrim of the Dupree Theatre at the Irving Arts Center shift from nightclub glitter to the grand mansions and wide green lawns of an estate, from a sports car to a hydroplane, and back to a stately garden, depending on where Nick’s tale takes us. Unfortunately, in some of the scenes, the overhead stage lighting dimmed the colors of the screen images.
The script does a great job of condensing Fitzgerald’s story, while including much of his original lyrical prose in the dialogue.
Right away, we meet Nick’s southern debutante cousin Daisy Buchanan (a lithe, vulnerable Holly Grace Gaddy) and her handsome, self-absorbed husband, Tom (a tall, arrogantly imposing Jon Garrard), Nick’s classmate at Yale. Nick steps from stage front directly into the action and takes his place between two front-facing chairs and a sofa, as an effusive Daisy welcomes her cousin home from the war, draped in her prettiest pale floral dress.
Michael A. Robinson, owner of the Dallas Costume Shoppe, outfits all the women in clingy flapper-era outfits, from sequined, strappy gowns to chiffon garden dresses. The men look good in well-fitted suits and sharp polished shoes. Gatsby looks especially luxurious in a handsome rose-colored morning coat.
In one fast-moving scene, Nick meets the shapely Jordon Baker (a sassy, hip-swinging Lori Jones), a fem pro golfer visiting the Buchanans, learns about Tom’s slatternly married mistress Myrtle Wilson (a florid, angry Madyson Greenwood), and gets a whiff of Daisy’s miserable marriage steeped in great wealth and fragrant with infidelity. Occasionally the tight exposition gets awkward, but each character rolls out just enough back-story to lead us into the familiar arc of the story.
When we do meet the great Jay Gatsby (an engaging Travis Ponikiewski), we expect somebody more restlessly contained, more imposing and more glamorous than most actors can bring off after such a build-up. Ponikiewki’s Gatsby is boyishly handsome in his white dinner jacket and hand-tied bow tie, but he seems more the affable young man eager to impress his prom date than the mysterious millionaire who throws glitzy parties in the mansion next door to lure back a long-lost sweetheart.
Gaddy’s Daisy is a convincing object of desire, a child-woman with an anxious smile on her heart-shaped face as she wanders alone in her garden. In scenes with Tom, Gaddy’s Daisy glowers with disdain at his pleas to simply allow him his space and go tend to their young child. Her face becomes soft and loving at the sight of Gatsby, and her soft, southern accent is flirtatious but not cloying. In the brief scene dancing together in the dark, the two characters create a fleeting glimpse of lost love found—one of the play’s high moments amid necessary long narrative sequences.
Garrard is a first-rate bastard as Tom, full of himself and his family’s name, sneering at the idea that a “nobody from nowhere” could ever win a woman from his bed. Violent with his mistress, and condescending to Daisy, Garrard’s Tom is the epitome of ugly power. His heartlessness is particularly evident in his scornful laughing at the lowly mechanic George Wilson (a painfully bent and beaten-down Gerald Fitzgerald), whose wife he is sleeping with.
Jones layers on the sardonic a little thick as the lady golfer with an eye for Nick, and she delivered her dialogue so fast in the first scenes, it was hard to understand some of the lines a night after opening. She does look enticing in the costumes, and she slowed her delivery down a bit by the second act.
Kullman’s Nick keeps an even keel all through the play, whether narrating the story upfront, or stepping into the events he recalls. Whether he’s addressing an audience or kissing a girl, Kullman looks more curious than passionate. The Jay and Nick scenes are not quite Fitzgerald. Both young actors, with their modern buzz-cuts and relaxed delivery, have a hard time convincing us of their odd camaraderie, when one is supposed to be a wary returning Great War veteran, and the other an imposing, self-made millionaire making it big in bootlegging. Likeable, yes. Seductive—not so much.
More than half the mostly youthful actors in the 15-member cast are making their Mainstage debut with this performance, although most list earlier theater training and favorite roles. Their delight in performing in the show is spelled out in the program and evident in their enthusiastic, if sometimes over-the-top, renderings of the Gatsby characters.
Several supporting cast members rushed through speeches, making some scenes more uneven. Director Wilson often keeps characters toward the middle of the large stage, where the actors sometimes feel afloat between the huge projections behind them and the few props and pieces of furniture they carry on and off the stage between scenes.
Still, nobody misses a cue, and when tragedy strikes suddenly after an afternoon of drinking at a mansion and driving around for the hell of it, we care what happens to the people in this timely tale of ambition and the power of great wealth.
When the show ends, with both a bang and whimper, we’re shocked. Again.
That's the power of a classic.