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Can't Repeat the Past? An Immersive 'Great Gatsby' Thinks You Can.

“The theatrical performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, opening this month at the Park Central Hotel, is the latest in a very long, heavily sequined line of "Gatsby" adaptations."

By Alexis Soloski

In the formerly deserted ballroom of a Midtown Manhattan hotel, on a morning in early May, work lights shone on piles of tile and metal debris. A gramophone stood atop a table beside bolts of shimmering cloth. Artificial flowers spilled from bins. A stack of old-timey suitcases reached the ceiling. Plastic coated the carpets. Dust coated the plastic. In just a month, the doors of this space were scheduled to open onto opulent interiors, meant to evoke the moneyed New York of a century ago. For now, I counted a dozen separate folding ladders and choked on the particulate swirling in the air of this construction zone. Ain’t we got fun.

This was the intended site of the Gatsby Mansion, the setting of the “The Great Gatsby: The Immersive Show,” a theatrical performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel that opens on Sunday at the Park Central Hotel, the latest in a very long, heavily sequined line of “Gatsby” adaptations. That novel — yearning, lyrical, mordant — tells the story of Jay Gatsby, a millionaire bootlegger and minor gangster, who remakes himself in a disastrous attempt to win Daisy Buchanan, the society girl he once loved.

 

That the crusade ends poorly for Gatsby — dead in a swimming pool — has not stopped filmmakers, theatermakers, writers, composers, radio producers and merchandisers from crowding toward the work for nearly a century, pulled to it as inexorably as Gatsby is to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, to “the orgastic future.”

Since the copyright on the novel expired in 2021, the Gatsby frenzy has only increased. A graphic novel is soon to be published, an animated movie is in development, as are at least two musical adaptations aimed at Broadway, one with a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok and music by Florence Welch, another with music and lyrics from Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen. And if the novel has not yet been used to advertise actual orgies, the Gatsby name has already sold diamond headpieces, champagne coupes, hotel suites. There’s a line in “Gatsby” suggesting you can’t repeat the past. Of course you can, old sport, in a Gatsby-branded collared shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons.

Why has “Gatsby” remained so seductive? In her book “So We Read On: How ‘The Great Gatsby’ Came to Be and Why It Endures,” the literary critic Maureen Corrigan argues that “Gatsby” appropriations often provide a limited, blinkered reading of the book.

“They’re just focusing on one side of this incredibly nuanced novel,” Corrigan said in a phone interview last month, “which is saying, It’s beautiful to try, it’s beautiful to reach for the American dream.” But there is another side to the book, Corrigan noted, which is, “You’re going to fall short, you’re going to be disappointed, you’re going to be disillusioned.”

John Collins, the artistic director of the experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service, had that tension between dream and disillusion in mind when he created “Gatz” more than a decade ago. The marathon performance used every line of Fitzgerald’s text.

“Everyone seems to fall prey to the idea of the big, glamorous 1920s parties, which is unfortunate,” he said in an interview last month. “It’s like they didn’t read the book.”

I had worried that this new immersive production might skew too much toward Jazz Age glamour, probably because during my initial tour of the space, three separate people led me toward the purpose-built Art Deco bar and told me that it would be sturdy enough to dance on. But Alexander Wright, who adapted and directs this version for the stage, indicated that he had a different motto: “Come for the party. Stay for the social tragedy.”

“The Great Gatsby: The Immersive Show” made its debut in London eight years ago, when Wright, the co-founder of a theater company called the Guild of Misrule, found himself (mostly by accident) helping to run a pub in York, England. He didn’t often have a three-story building at his disposal. He wanted to make the most of it. He’d considered adapting another Fitzgerald novel, the doomed, claustrophobic romance “The Beautiful and Damned,” but realized “Gatsby” would fit the space better.

“Gatsby,” he thought, asked for — and rewarded — immersion. “You get that sense of falling into it, wanting to fall into something,” he said. “It’s beautiful to be able to make art that asks an audience to put themselves into it. ‘Gatsby’ as a book does that.”

The original script was brief, just 35 pages, and the set, created mostly from scavenged furniture, was improvised and minimal. Audiences entered up a fire escape, over the roof and through the back of the building into a replica of a drugstore speakeasy. Scheduled to run for just four weeks in 2015, the production re-emerged in two new spaces the next year. In 2017, it was featured as part of Vault Festival in London. The show kept on, first in a former carpet factory and then in a fancier building on Bond Street, where, apart from a temporary pandemic pause, it ran until January. It has spawned offshoots in Belgium, Ireland, Wales and South Korea.

Wright and his producers, Immersive Everywhere, had long wanted to bring the show — which uses both group scenes and more intimate ones and select one-on-one encounters to bring “Gatsby” alive — to New York. When the novel entered the public domain, it was finally possible. Louis Hartshorn, an executive producer, toured many spaces — derelict office buildings, closed music venues, factories, warehouses — before settling on this Midtown ballroom, a 16,000-square-foot blank and dusty canvas. The central location appealed, as did the high ceilings. Multiple exits and pre-existing restrooms were a plus. The Park Central Hotel was also where the gangster Arnold Rothstein, the inspiration for the novel’s sinister Meyer Wolfsheim, was fatally wounded in 1928. Hartshorn signed last year in May; he was given keys in July. Previews were set to begin in December.

To bring this “Gatsby” to the city in which it’s set felt, Wright said, “amazing, inspiring, humbling, a bit intimidating.” It was also challenging. Re-creating the glories of the 1920s requires a very contemporary permitting process and technology, and can run up against supply chain issues, which helps explain the six-month delay.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure behind the opulence,” Hartshorn said.

The ballroom’s electric systems needed upgrading. There were some bad surprises (like learning that the ballroom also needed new HVAC), but some good ones, too. The space had been carpeted, but when workers pulled the carpet up, they discovered an elegant terrazzo floor. And while it was too expensive to replace the not-quite-period chandeliers, they could be repurposed as part of the lighting design.

When I returned a few weeks later, some of the construction debris had vanished and a few of the rooms — Gatsby’s study, Daisy’s dressing room, the apartment in which Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan conduct an affair — had begun to take shape, though the furniture still looked out of place. I watched the actress Stephanie Cha sing a jazz standard while Jillian Anne Abaya’s Daisy, in athleisure, danced with Joél Acosta’s Gatsby. Then the cast scattered. Wright pushed me toward a domestic spat between the Wilsons, though I might have followed any of half a dozen other tracks. It would take about 10 visits to see every story in its entirety. Select audience members might also be plucked for special interactions or quests.

This production is larger than the previous ones that Wright has staged in Britain. The principal characters have increased to 10 from 7. (The square footage, the audience capacity and the budgets are bigger, too.) One of these new principals is Wolfsheim, the gangster. S. Dylan Zwickel, a Jewish writer based in New York, was brought in to deepen the character while stripping away the antisemitic tropes that Fitzgerald relied on — the parodic Yiddish accent, the cuff links made of human teeth.

“The main thing,” Zwickel said in a phone interview, “was about bringing out his humanity, making sure he wasn’t just this money-grubbing caricature.” Wolfsheim, she believes, should be just one more character grasping for the green light of the American dream.

Whether any of the characters realize that dream and whether any adaptation can fully capture the quicksilver wonder of the original remain open questions. But this immersive “Gatsby” wants to try.

There will be cocktails before the show — and caviar, if you’re feeling extravagant — followed by a lesson in how to dance the Charleston. It should feel like a party, a dream. And then, if Wright and his collaborators have their way, it should feel like a calamity, with that dream broken and exhausted and deferred. About two and a half hours later, the show will finish and the after-hours events will begin and audience members can dance and drink faster, stretch their arms out farther, until closing time. The bar, I am told, is strong enough to dance on.

 

A correction was made on June 20, 2023: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a line in “The Great Gatsby.” It is “the orgastic future,” not the orgiastic future.

 

A correction was made on June 21, 2023: An earlier version of this article also described incorrectly how the character Jay Gatsby’s arc comes to an end. He is found dead in a pool, where he has been shot, not drowned.

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