For a book that’s mostly about drinking and eating, it’s no surprise that Elevator Repair Service chose to set their 3 1/2 hour staging of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a bar, and named it after the Café Select, the watering hole Hemingway’s emasculated doppelgänger Jake Barnes and his expat circle frequent. Probably due to technical considerations, most of the eating was cut in this ArtsEmerson production that brought ERS back to Boston following their local premiere last year at the A.R.T. with Gatz–a full text reading/play of The Great Gatsby. (The Select isn’t quite the whole book, but the bulk of it is there and with a lot more dialog than Fitzgerald provided.) But, The Select lost something in the vast space of the Paramount Theatre, compared to the more intimate Loeb which complemented Gatz‘s delicate beginning and quality of being a reading. The actors were miked and the Paramount’s sound left much to be desired. I suppose people who go see large scale musicals like Mary Poppins are used to taking their theater through a pair of speakers, but I prefer the (particularly directional) nuance of speech that only an unamplified cast can provide.
The Select isn’t as resourceful as its predecessor. There is nothing here to mirror the transformation of a shabby office to Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg, or an on-stage sound guy that jumps up from his laptop to play an elevator boy. But then, it isn’t as reliant on such gimmicks. In fact, ERS spends a lot of time parodying themselves. The set’s folding tables stand in for beds, bars all over Europe, the stands at a bullfight, and when they represent the fish Jake and Bill catch on their fishing trip, two miniature tables are brought out to represent Jake’s catch (as if his masculinity wasn’t already threatened enough). Sound cues like the sound of liquor pouring into a glass often deliberately outlast the actions they’re meant to accompany. ERS has teased out a lot of humor from the book in this way, but I’m afraid it might be too soon for them to descend into self-parody. I wish they had taken themselves a little more seriously and spent more time exploring the novel’s subtext rather than seeking laughs.
Most of these laughs went to Ben Williams (Bill), who also worked on the sound here and for Gatz. Whether or not it’s comic, ERS’s epic shows require epic sound design and Bill’s technical ability is only matched by his comic talent. Entering late in the play (and the novel), he’s something of a comic relief to Cohn’s (Matt Tierney) desperate doting over Brett, Brett’s (Lucy Taylor) thinly veiled emptiness, and Jake’s (Mike Ivenon) nocturnal melancholy. He performed much like a stand-up comic might, acting out a slapstick fishing scene and even delivering a funny story into a 1940s microphone as if he’s performing within the play. Comparatively, Mike Ivenon’s Jake is more hard boiled, but he didn’t quite ooze the machismo Hemingway wrote into his anti-hero. Too bad, because I think that proud chauvinism is here, more than anywhere else in Hemingway’s oeuvre, essential. Otherwise, Jake’s war injury doesn’t have the significance the novel gives it.
The Select strobes between lively storytelling and the stilted, paired-down narration one would expect from a reading of Hemingway (and which I prefer), just as it switches from silly comedy to dark sadness. If I’m going to sit there for 3 1/2 hours listening to the book aloud, I would have preferred something with more direction in its engagement with the text. Technically, ERS has stepped it up from Gatz. The music and blocking were fantastic, conjuring well the cosmos of the novel on stage–which I suppose is the whole point to these literary-theatrical experiments. Lucy Taylor’s Brett was outstanding in its soft balance of charm, idiosyncrasy, and sadness. As was Susie Sokol’s Pedro Romero, in its boyish but confident naiveté. Fully costumed (in contrast to the hipster but vaguely period garb of the rest of the cast), she mimed elaborate performances of the bull fights as Iveson narrated them like a sports announcer. I hope we get to see ERS in Boston next year with another American classic under their arm.