Updated: Feb 27, 2020
‘Great Gatsby’ speaks volumes to our times
Maverick Theater’s Brian Newell finds that the 2020s have a lot in common with The Roaring ’20s – and sees his new stage version as more potent than what Hollywood wrought in 1974 and 2013.
By Joel Beers
Well, of course, the Jan. 31 opening of “The Great Gatsby” launches the Maverick Theater’s 2020 season. What better way to honor the 100th anniversary of the exuberant and high-octane – if doomed to end in disaster – decade of the Roaring ’20s than with its most emblematic literary work?
You could even say the Maverick was designed with “Gatsby” in mind, as founder Brian Newell chose the visual and design aesthetic of the era, art deco, for its interior – and even got the guy who helped design a legit art deco movie palace to do his for free.
But while the timing and art deco homage might make you think Newell’s been planning this particular play in this particular slot for years, you’d be wrong.
Sure, he’d occasionally thought of staging Simon Levy’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel since he first came across it, but it never quite fit in with the rest of his season. And it definitely wasn’t what he was looking for to kick off 2020.
“I wanted a comedy,” said Newell, who directs the show, to offset the very serious drama of Arthur Millers’ “The Crucible,” which goes up in the spring. It wasn’t until he was unable to secure the rights to six lighter players that Newell even considered “Gatsby.” And even that was kind of by accident. With the new year rapidly approaching and needing a play to go up by the start of February, Newell took a trip to his personal Samuel French: the scores of plays he’d accumulated over nearly 40 years of reading, studying and producing theater. And when he saw “Gatsby,” it was a no-brainer.
“I instantly thought ‘this is so obviously perfect.’ It’s a fitting way to start the 2020s, so there’s that nostalgia, but it’s also such an iconic novel of such an innocent, but weird, time, in America. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It was like it was hidden but then just appeared.”
Newell didn’t get the comedy he wanted, but he did get one lively novel and one incredible era. While the plot isn’t revolutionary by 2020 standards – a love triangle that ends unpleasantly for all involved – the backdrop is fascinating.
For those who had the leisure time and income to enjoy it, the window between the end of World War I and the Great Depression was America’s longest, largest and most extravagant party. The great consumer Republic had been born; advertising and the automobile were everywhere; women finally gained the right to vote, and with it came a loosening of constraining fashion and opening up of sexual liberty; prohibition made alcohol illegal – and all the more exciting to drink; technology promised nothing but convenience; the middle class was growing right along with a booming stock market fueled by wild-eyed speculation; and even if America was still a painfully segregated country in the midst of enacting its most draconian immigration laws, the jazz that streamed out of the clubs of Harlem became the soundtrack of an urbanized America that seemed younger and more vigorous than ever.
Fitzgerald captured much of that, but he also anticipated the devastating hangover that would clobber the country, and world, at decade’s end. Alongside the free-wheeling, libertine lifestyle and ritzy high living of its main characters, there is also poverty, criminality, deceit and despair and a sense, as Newell puts it, of “somehow capturing the innocence of an era that was at the same time losing it.”
And it’s all tied together with a complicated dual romance, of sorts, with the mysterious yet charismatic new-money millionaire Jay Gatsby at the center of each. One is Gatsby’s all-consuming love for the high-spirited Daisy, who is married to old money; the other is with her cousin, Nick, a writer-turned-fledgling stockbroker who may not be in romantic love with Gatsby, but has one mighty man-crush on him.
Levy, who is the producing director of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, published his adaptation in 2012, but the play debuted in 2006, opening up the acclaimed Guthrie Theatre’s new digs in Minneapolis. One can only speculate, but the timing of its publication might have something to do with the 2013 release of the second star-studded Hollywood treatment of Fitzgerald’s novel.
But while that film, just as the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, was praised for its acting and visual spectacle, many bemoaned its lack of substance and depth.
Newell said Levy’s adaptation does a better job than either of the films in capturing the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel by focusing on one of its literary pillars: dialogue.
“I don’t think any film has fully captured the novel and I don’t think any ever will unless they did a miniseries,” he said. “It’s just so hard to adapt a novel that people know so well. But what I enjoyed about the adaptation is that all the dialogue is (taken from) lines from the novel and I think it does a more thorough job in fleshing out a couple of the relationships that weren’t as strong in the two movies.”
Although the Maverick is well known for its theatricalizing of films and screenplays, which Newell calls “staged cinema,” other than underscoring and one important visual rear projection, he’s going to let the story tell itself (with the help from his cast), relying on costumes and a few well-chosen period-looking set pieces to provide the necessary theatrical illusion.
Because, after all, it’s the story, and the way Fitzgerald told it, which is why the novel has captivated readers for so long. But it’s the subjective way that story is experienced and interpreted that makes it continue to resonate nearly 100 years later, and why Newell has gained a deeper appreciation of it as he has matured.
“Everybody who has talked to me about it says there’s a different element they like,” Newell said. “Some like the romance, or the way Fitzgerald wrote it, or the period. There’s no consistency. Some just say they love it all. Maybe it’s one of those novels in which everything just worked so well on so many levels that everyone can enjoy it and get something different from it – even those of us who were forced to read it in tenth grade English class.
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
‘The Great Gatsby’
Maverick Theater, 118 E. Walnut St., Fullerton
Jan. 31-March 14. Fri. Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 6 p.m.