Last year, Elevator Repair Service (ERS) stunned New York theatergoers with a six-hour production, Gatz, a word-for-word dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Now, the New York based ensemble is back with The Select, a three and a half hour condensed interpretation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, directed by John Collins.
In real life, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were friends and rivals. They lived and wrote about the so-called “lost” generation of post-World War I young Americans who came of age in the 1920s. Though I was thoroughly enchanted by this inventive, fast-paced performance, which includes some wonderful dance sequences, Hemingway fares less well than Fitzgerald in this ERS production, basically because the main characters, though entertaining, lack gravitas. We don’t care as much as we should about their fates. The gut-wrenching sadness of the book, and its metaphors, is lost in translation.
What we get, instead of emotional depth, is a great deal of action. And it’s quite entrancing. For anyone interested in the theatre, this is an exhilarating example of “less is more.” The fluidity of the 10 actors, many of whom play multiple roles, is impressive. What they embody is the intensity, passion and heedlessness of youth – drinking too much, dancing too much, falling in love with the wrong person or people – in post-World War I Paris and Spain. On that level, many of us can relate.
The sound design by Ben Williams and Matt Tierney is another brilliant element in this production. Whether it’s trout fishing or bottle smashing, the sound effects are quite magical and elusive. How do they do it? By the end of the play, it becomes quite clear how the sound effects are created, but their impact is no less effective.
The play’s setting is a bar, lined with liquor and wine bottles, furnished with two long tables that serve as places to drink, as beds and, in one astounding and electrifying sequence – perhaps the best in the play — a charging bull. It is worth the price of admission just to see how this is done.
A friendly but not particularly macho Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson), is the narrator. He introduces us, with the casual anti-Semitism of the 20s, to the sad-sack Jew from Princeton, Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney), as well as the boyish, English femme fatale, Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor). Hemingway had a thing for androgynous women, and Taylor is brilliant in the role. Barnes and Cohn are both in love with Lady Brett, as are countless others. But Barnes, impotent from a war wound, cannot consummate the relationship and Cohn, though potent, is obsessive and dismissed as hopelessly inappropriate by one and all.
Hemingway’s infamous prose is treated two ways – as deadpan narration and as comedy, which undermines Hemingway’s serious intent.
The Sun Also Rises was originally titled “La Fiesta.” The second act is largely focused on an alcohol fueled bacchanal in Pamplona, during which Lady Brett becomes hopelessly but somewhat predictably infatuated with a young matador, Pedro Romero, played quite convincingly by a woman, Susie Sokol. Ultimately, just as predictably, Lady Brett flees this inappropriate liaison and calls for Jake to rescue her. As Jake and Lady Brett huddle together in a taxi at the end of play, we feel, instead of the pain of thwarted passion, well, not much. We may be sorry the play has ended – because it is a splendid few hours of theater – but we are not sorry to see these unreflective, casually cruel people go.