TAMPA — Like any other adaptation of a great novel, getting The Great Gatsby to the stage requires ambition and steel nerves.
Stageworks Theatre, which has never shied away from daunting tasks, has picked up the mantle with Simon Levy's adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. Levy, a Los Angeles playwright and director, was a finalist for a PEN Literary Award for the play, which opened in Seattle in 2006.
By definition, a stage version can only hope to reflect the original. It cannot supplant anything. Stageworks has produced a serious show that spares no effort. Director Noelle Monroe cast the leading roles wisely and mastered artful transitions that unfold like dance sequences, as one scene blends into the next.
It's a little slow at times, particularly toward the end of the first act. Without any immediate conflicts to resolve or the comfort of the novelist guiding the story along, actors are left to make up the difference.
Some take on that impossible task in inspiring ways. Dahlia Legault, who has appeared on AMC's The Walking Dead, does so as Jordan Baker, a charmingly jaded socialite and the love interest of Nick Carraway. Lauren Buglioli plays Daisy, Nick's vulnerable cousin and eternal flame of his neighbor, the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, with nuance and depth.
As in the book, the story is narrated by Carraway, an aspiring businessman who has taken his nonjudgmental Midwestern sensibilities to New York City in the Jazz Age. Nathan Jokela provides an even tempered presence as Nick, who also connects segments of the play with soliloquies from the novel. Serving up Fitzgerald's exquisite phrasing reminds the audience of why the work is considered a masterpiece, and also how any attempt to replace it inevitably falls short.
Which brings us back to this show. Levy's adaptation is the first to be given exclusive rights by the Fitzgerald estate, and is the only stage version allowed to be produced in the United States and Canada. One wonders if this permission came about because of the playwright's faithfulness to the text.
But successful adaptations often come by taking risks, interpreting the original in some dramatically different way. Being true to a novel that soared with descriptive passages — while only introducing that unfiltered voice in narrative snippets — makes a theater's job harder. The math doesn't work out.
Aspects of this production also seem incongruous. Jamie Jones plays Tom Buchanan, Daisy's abusive husband and the story's major engine of conflict, with all of the requisite snobbery and short-tempered sense of entitlement. Still, the menace in certain scenes seems more stated than felt. For example, a fight scene between Tom and Gatsby makes one wonder whether anybody involved with this production has ever seen a real fight, let alone been in one.
Still, R. James Faurote makes for a smooth Gatsby, whose extravagance intrigues and later somewhat repels. Overall, the script stringently pares down the plot, which could either reflect discipline or indifference, not unlike a comic book abridgment. Gatsby devotees might be curious to check out the show, understanding it's a pale shadow of the work that inspired it.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.