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Classic, “The Great Gatsby,” at Ensemble

Roy Berko

(Member–Cleveland Critics Circle and American Theatre Critics Association)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” which many consider one of the greatest American novels, is the writer who, more than any other, painted a literary vision of the American Jazz age.  It was the 1920s, the era of decadence, mob violence, prohibition, flappers, dance crazes, high fashion, loose women,  powerful men, love and lust.

Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and Damned,” and “Tender Is the Night” were all classics, but nothing grabbed and still holds the public’s attention more than “The Great Gatsby.”  The novel was so compelling that at least five movie versions have been made.  The latest was in a 2014 which directed by Baz Luhrmann and featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.

Fitzgerald wrote in his novel, “The Rich Boy,” “Let me tell you about the rich.  They are different from you and me.” Jay Gatsby, the central character in “Gatsby,” a stage adapted version by Simon Levy, which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, should have taken Fitzgerald’s statement into consideration in dealing with Tom Buchannan and his wife Daisy.  As it turned out, nouveau rich Gatsby was no match for the depths to which the old-money wealthy Tom would go to keep Daisy.

Jay Gatsby, the play’s flawed protagonist, lives in a large mansion in a fictional section on Long Island.  Many secrets circulate about the man who throws lavish parities for the rich and famous and how he obtained his wealth.  As the tale unfolds we learn that “Jay Gatsby” was born on a farm in North Dakota, befriended by a millionaire who taught him the skills of making massive amounts of money, met Daisy while in officer training school, fell in love with her, and spent the rest of his life in pursuit of the Louisville debutant.

Daisy Buchanan, who, after meeting Gatsby during World War I, promised to wait for him, also craves wealth and power.  When Tom Buchanan, who has both, proposes to her, she dismisses her promise to wait for Gatsby, and accepts.

Years later, after Gatsby has achieved his fortune, for the sole purpose of getting Daisy, the duo are reunited after much manipulating on Gatsby’s part.  Daisy agrees to leave her husband.   But the woman, who is subject to mood and decision swings is incapable of making a break from her philandering husband.

In the tale, Nick Carraway, who acts as the story’s narrator, is a young man from Minnesota, who fought in World War I, and goes to New York to learn the bond business.  He moves to Long Island, living in a small cottage next to the opulent estate of  secretive, wealthy Jay Gatsby.  As a cousin of Daisy Buchanan, Nick is encouraged by Gatsby, who has befriended the Midwest transplant, to arrange for a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby.  Little does Nick know that he is partaking in rekindling a romance between the two, a romance that will lead to psychological and physical destruction.

The story’s antagonist, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s wealthy husband, is a self-centered, arrogant bully.  He is a true image of Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy” quote about the ways of the rich.  He beds who he likes, including the pretty but shallow Myrtle, the wife of a local service station owner.  It is this relationship which is the catalyst that brings “The Great Gatsby” to its emotional ending.

Simon Levy’s stage version of “The Great Gatsby, is an encapsulated version of the original Fitzgerald manuscript. This writing completes what he calls his Fitzgerald Trilogy, in which he adapted “Tender Is the Night,” and “The Last Tycoon” into stage plays. The compressed format lends itself to a streamlined play, with fragmentary scenery, a small cast, and the bare essentials of the story.

Ensemble’s production of “The Great Gatsby,” under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, accomplishes Levy’s goal of giving a snapshot version of the tale of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and the decadence of the Jazz era.

Hinz has made an ingenious choice in casting Kyle Carthens in the Jay Gatsby role and Greg White as Meyer Wolfsheim.  Both actors are Black.  This not only takes the interpretation of the play in a different direction than the movie versions, which cast White actors in the roles, but highlights the racial and religious prejudice of the 1920s.  It makes Nick’s obvious deep seated hatreds sizzle even more.  He not only despises Gatsby for his desire for Daisy, but highlights Nick’s underlying racial prejudices.  It also puts a spotlight on Nick’s dislike for Meyer Wolfsheim, usually played as a Jewish gangster, and Wolfsheim’s being Gatsby’s benefactor.

James Rankin nicely textures his performance as Nick Carraway, the play’s narrator.  He, more than anyone in the cast, comes across as real, not feigning emotions and motivations.

One of the production’s weaknesses is missing out on creating the required opulence of the Gatsby estate and the high level of visual elegance needed to live up to Fitzgerald’s descriptions in the book and Hollywood’s ability to create the proper illusion in their pictorial visions of the manuscript.  This was very noticeable in the costume designs, especially the male costumes, which were highlighted by inexpensive, ill-fitting suits, which were often era incorrect.  The required upscale image of the natty clothing of Gatsby, for example, and his famous pristine cream colored suit, were missing.
AnchorCapsule judgment:  “The Great Gatsby” is the illuminating tale of the Jazz Age, a time of the pursuit of money for the pursuit of money, with no moral base.  Neither the play version itself, nor the Ensemble production, is a perfect rendition of Fitzgerald’s classic book, but both do develop the basic  story and give an illusion of the America that was.  It’s worth a viewing.

“The Great Gatsby” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through December 14, 2014.  For tickets go to or 216-321-2930

Next at Ensemble:  “The Never-Ending Story’ adapted by David S. Craig, based on the novel by Michael Ende, directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, January 8-18, 2015.