Wisdom Bridge Theatre

I’ve got to admit I’ve never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic The Great Gatsby. The book got such heavy play in my high school English classes that I avoided it just to see if I could–and it turned out I could, so here I am with a major literary hole in my education. Let this be a lesson to you teenagers: do the assigned reading or expect to be humiliated 20 years from now.

Ignorant as I am, I can’t talk very specifically about how John Carlile’s new stage adaptation compares with Fitzgerald’s original tale about a poor midwestern boy who reinvents himself as a free-spending New York bon vivant. Little hints–something vague and arbitrary, for instance, in Carlile’s treatment of the romance between narrator Nick Carraway and a lady athlete named Jordan Baker–suggest that Fitzgerald probably had a better handle on things like motivation. Still, the stage version has its own virtues, its own distinctions. Like Jim Corti’s choreography, which leads the production at times into a Tempest-like dream world–as if Long Island were Prospero’s rock and Gatsby’s gang of sycophantic revelers were in fact conjured spirits dancing at a decadent, oddly anomic replay of Miranda’s wedding.

One thing I know without having to read the book is that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is white. Carlile’s is black. Or more accurately, Harry J. Lennix, the cunning and gorgeous actor who plays Carlile’s Gatsby, is black; the character itself retains all the ethnic and social accoutrements of a wealthy white man living in a privileged east-coast enclave during the boom decade of the 1920s.

This is what’s called color-blind casting, and the guardians of political correctness can get their dander back down because I’m not going to say a word against it. I think it’s good and right and progressive and appropriate. The only problem I have with it is that it doesn’t actually exist. No, there’s really no such thing as color-blind casting–not in America, at least; and not as long as most of the people who attend shows in America aren’t themselves blind. Theater is a visual medium, and race is culturally explosive, and every image a director puts onstage inevitably resonates with the force of culture. So when I see a black actor playing what sociologically and historically would be a white character, I figure it must signify.

What I figure it signifies in this case is that Carlile has found a rather exquisite metaphor for Gatsby’s situation. And by extension, for the situation of anyone who butts up against that classic American paradox: the promise that you can become anything you want here as long as you’re willing to deny what you are.

Long and desperately in love with the beautiful, languid, aristocratic Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s decided to become the man he’s sure she wants and then to take her away from her rich but unworthy husband, Tom. To that end he bootlegs his way into a fortune, buys a mansion across the harbor from Daisy’s, and throws endless soirees. Sure enough, the strategy leads by an indirect route to Daisy, who takes something more than kindly to Gatsby. But the results are far from what he’d imagined. Poor boy, Gatsby may be an accomplished manipulator, but he’s the purest neophyte compared to the Long Island gentry. They chew him up and spit him out.

It’s sad to watch. Lennix’s Gatsby walks the walk and talks the talk with an aplomb–even a delicacy–to which his so-called betters can’t aspire. He’s suave, he’s smart, he’s handsome, he’s impeccably dressed and extremely well-spoken–though he leans a little hard on the Oxfordish “old boy” stuff and can’t always keep his pedigree straight. All he lacks toward perfection are the brittleness, ennui, lassitude, bigotry, and plain nastiness of the truly privileged. But that’s enough to exclude him from their circle of light.

And the outward sign of his exclusion is Lennix’s dark skin. Think of it as Gatsby’s heart–his inner reality–expressed as pigment. No matter how well he walks or talks or dresses, he can’t possibly finesse this essential, ineradicable distinction between him and the world he’s trying to crash. We know it. We can see it. It’s pretty much written all over his face. The tragedy is that he himself hasn’t a clue.

The whole thing reminds me of John Guare’s magnificent new play, Six Degrees of Separation, in which a young black man makes a study of certain well-off Manhattanites, familiarizing himself with their lives and values and affectations so that he can pose as one of them and make his way into their world. Paul, Guare’s poseur, would certainly identify with Nick Carraway’s definition of personality as “an unbroken string of gestures.” Like Gatsby, he thinks he can make himself over in the image of what he takes to be the ruling elite. Like Gatsby, he can’t. Both men become lost in the condition of becoming, in the country of becoming, which is America. Voltaire’s maxim applies like crazy: The more things change . . .

The strengths and weaknesses of Carlile’s production are awfully appropriate, considering his subject matter. He demonstrates an enormous visual eloquence on the one hand, and a miserable psychological opacity on the other. Even normally vivid actors like Kate Goehring lapse into inarticulacy–I still have no idea what Goehring’s Daisy Buchanan wants from Gatsby or anyone else. She appears to us as Gatsby himself might see her: a cryptic, if alluring, vision rather than a woman.

But then there are those passages of pure movement. Actors writhing through their grotesque party motions to Evan Chen’s ironic music. Or assuming the form of a human pool for Gatsby to swim in, under Peter Gottlieb’s evocative lights. Somebody said this show should be a ballet, and it’s true. Then Gatsby could be displayed in his element, the world of image.