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‘Well played, old sport’

2/3/2017

Benjamin Sheridan has delivered the sort of supporting performances that put the leads in the shade. Last fall, in “Death of a Salesman,” his turn as the title character’s older son — first worshipful, then scornful — sketched a tragic, emotional journey that those who saw it won’t soon forget.

Now Sheridan has the lead as Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s neighbor and the story’s moral barometer. Once again, the actor comes up with something special, a fresh brand of physical comedy. He pretzels this way and that as the other players try to give Nick the rush. Better yet, when Sheridan breaks theater’s Fourth Wall in order to comment, he rises to the challenge of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s language. He gets the helpless humanity in the famous closing: “We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Those ringing lines, however, raise a question for “The Great Gatsby” on stage. They make us wonder whether we wouldn’t rather be home reading the book. Fitzgerald’s novel earns its classic status, as Nick’s larger-than-life neighbor first blows up still bigger, and then collapses, in a bloody heap. Every pagGatsbyPlaza2e has its poetic touches, its smart-aleck asides, and yet the whole proves a quick read. Carraway’s narration is so smart, it skips over unnecessary back and forth.

But back and forth is the lifeblood of theater. To adapt “Great Gatsby” means taking matters that the text encapsulates in a single, well-observed passage and unfolding them as dialog and movement. For devotees of Fitzgerald like myself, that was a bummer, but for the production as a whole, it’s no more than a minor annoyance.

Even a questionable scene can catch fire in the hands of the right cast, and the good work in this show hardly begins and ends with Sheridan. Three of the major players are making their Playhouse debut, but all have resumes elsewhere, and none feel like a weak spot. Emma Kay Banner has the greatest challenge, as Daisy Buchanan, practically the poster girl for a bird in a gilded cage. The strain of her efforts to escape dominates the first scene, embodied in Banner’s pasted-on smile and liquored-up rambling.

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As her husband Tom, Mason Ferguson projects both smugness and menace. Tom knows he’s at the top of the food chain, while Gatsby has to fake it. As for him, the man in the title, Matthew Philip Smith, got the brittleness of the façade. He kept his chin up, his jaw clenched. Among the major players, though, my favorite would be Shelby Jensen as Carraway’s almost-girlfriend Jordan Baker. Jensen’s every gesture seems to flirt until a burst of real caring finally rubs her raw.

Among the secondary players, Kristin Gredys stands out for her “Noo Yawk Squawk.” Throughout, too, the strong cast is matched by the technical command. Costumer Angela Lampe gets the contrast between Carraway and Baker into their outfits, his restrained, hers flamboyant. The set was spare, but designer Travis George and director John Viars brought off remarkable changes with little more than a few sticks of furniture and well-placed veils — plus the gifts of David Goldstein on the lighting. Goldstein even brought to life two of Fitzgerald’s indelible images — the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and the brooding eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. As Gatsby might say: “Well played, old sport.”

–John Domini

“The Great Gatsby”
Des Moines Playhouse
Feb. 1 –11, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 5 and 12, 2 p.m.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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