Thursday, November 8, 2012

theatre review THE SELECT, McCarter Theatre, October 28

The simple story of The Emperor's New Clothes was front and center while I was watching the latest play by the theatre group Elevator Repair Service The Select (The Sun Also Rises) at the McCarter Theatre.  You see, the Elevator Repair Service is the hit theatre group of the moment.  They created the six hour production of Gatz which consisted of the group saying every single word of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in a dramatic setting.  Having missed that well reviewed production, I was looking forward to seeing The Select and their take on the novel The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.  But during the show I kept thinking of The Emperor's New Clothes and am wondering if many people are just so caught up in the buzz that this group is getting that they aren't really seeing how mediocre, plodding and fairly amateurish this production is.  I have no idea if the other plays in their trilogy of American novels that include Gatz and The Sound and The Fury are also like this, but it clearly gives me no interest to see anything else they are producing.  And we were clearly not alone in our view as even though we stuck it out for the over three hour running time of the show, there were many people who left at intermission.

Lucy Taylor, Mike Iveson and Susie Sokol
Telling the story of a group of American and British people and their travels across Europe, the novel and play focus on two characters, journalist Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, a divorced English Women.  Over three hours we watch as Jake declares his love for Brett, but while Brett loves him they both know that they can never truly be together since Jake is impotent from a war injury.  Many other characters come in and out of their lives including Brett's finance and Jake's college friend Robert Cohn both of whom Brett has had affairs with.  The play culminates in Pamplona Spain with Brett's infatuation with the 19 year old bull fighter Romero and ends with Brett and Jake having an intimate conversation about how their lives might have been but Brett deciding to go back to her fiance.  

Most of the dialogue in the play is taken directly from the novel and that clearly helps.   The character of Brett was well played by Lucy Taylor.  Brett is an interesting character in the fact that she is basically a bitch and a slut but has four men who are all in love with her and would basically follow her anywhere.  Taylor perfectly gets the right balance of sexuality, vulnerability and sadness.  She is constantly relying on Jake to help her out in tight situations and Jake always complies.   Mike Iveson as Jake does a good in showing us a man in love who slowly realizes he is basically being used.   The use of a woman, Susie Sokol, to play Romero was the only truly original idea that I thought worked very effectively, especially since Sokol was very good in portraying a hot blooded 19 year old Spanish boy.

The anti-Semitic part of the novel in the way the characters talk of Cohn is never pushed aside in the play, and in this day and age it was actually somewhat jarring that they didn't try to make this less prominent.  There are many reasons the characters don't like Cohn but why they have to keep talking about him being Jewish as one of them was very off putting to me.

The play sets the story in a bar, which is appropriate since every character in the play drinks heavily throughout.  And while I thought the walls of the bar were appropriately in sync with the play in how there was a shelf around the entire set lined with alcohol bottles, only the use of tables to represent various locales was very simple and ineffective, especially for a play that takes place in many locations.

Sure the acting is good and there were a few moments here and there that were truly inspired, like the bull fighting sequence and the ending scene with Brett and Jake in a taxi, but I found many parts of the staging of the Hemingway story to be almost amateurish .  Elaborate sound effects that highlight the popping of corks and the pouring of alcohol and bizarre choreography and music did nothing but add to an already long night at the theatre.  The choreography, which I can only say was insanely stupid, was something you'd see on a skit on Saturday Night Live that was mocking choreography.  I won't even mention the need to show the "manhood" of the bull fighter in his tight matador costume to highlight Brett's attraction to him except to say it made me say "really?" to myself.  There is also a truly bizarre moment toward the end of the play when the bar set piece toward the back is moved off stage so we can see the sound effects guy working his computer.  I have no idea why they did this since it was clear to me how the two guys who were working the machine kept going back and forth to that spot throughout the play.  Why they even needed this to be on stage is also confusing.   It was as if they were saying "look how clever we are, we are actually doing the sound effects on stage during the show!"  Seriously.

Others may have taken the journey and bought in to what ERS is doing with this famous piece of literature but I did not.   Three hours of my life I will never get back.

Brief highlights from the production when it played New York Theatre Workshop last year:

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