Jim Fletcher as Jimmy Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island

Try telling your friends there is this 7 hour, two-part play at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge that consists of nothing but the text from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. Then try telling them it is one of the most memorable nights you’ve ever had in a theater.

The truth is, Gatz is hard to describe. It sounds like a high brow yawn, self-conscious and unappealingly long. Someone reads from a book and that’s the whole play? Well, yes. And you found this engaging? Utterly.

It opens in a dingy office where every wall and fixture looks like it is coated in 40 years of grime. A bedraggled office worker enters and sits down at a ramshackle desk. When he can’t get his 80’s vintage PC to boot, he is left with nothing to do. Ransacking idly through the items on his desk, he finds a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel stashed in a floppy disk holder. In an odd but strangely organic moment, he begins to read the book out loud. Slowly, one at a time, others in the office join in to bring the story into form. It is as if they cannot resist getting caught up in this very American and bitterly heartbreaking tale. Just like all of us in the audience. It has the irresistible gravitational pull of a myth.

It is a preposterous and outrageous undertaking, to be sure. How do you take a book most of us have read and make it feel brand new? How do you create a theatrical frame that can hold the action while still allowing Fitzgerald’s jewel-like prose rise up without constraint? How do you pace the thing, ornament it, bring in humor (but never too much) and set a tone for the production that is pitch-perfect?

The Elevator Repair Service theater company began working on this project in 1999. For years they couldn’t get the rights to the material and ran into other external obstacles. But it wouldn’t die. Finally the stars aligned, lucky for us.

The plays (Part 1 and 2) run through February 7 in Cambridge and then heads to New York (according to the program notes by director John Collins.) Both my partner Dave and I woke up the next morning and said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great to see the whole thing again!” That’s not surprising coming from me, notoriously excessive with an endless passion for going under the spell of what art can do. But the more measured and temperate Dave? Now that tells you a lot.

Here’s a few excerpts from the play: WBUR

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