NEW YORK -- Go up to Scott Shepherd and ask him to begin reciting from, say, the beginning of Chapter Seven of "The Great Gatsby" and he pauses for only a moment.
"'It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night,'" he says in a soft and smooth delivery. Every word is correct. And he keeps going.
This is no mere party trick: Shepherd long ago memorized all 49,000 words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel as part of a critically acclaimed, word-for-word theatrical adaptation called "Gatz," which has returned this month to The Public Theater.
"It's so ingrained now that once I start, I can't stop," he says.
He's not kidding. In "Gatz," Shepherd reads aloud almost the entire book in an insanely inventive theatrical show that lasts over eight hours, including three breaks. He calls it "a David Blaine-type endurance stunt-event."
"It's my insurance policy against the haters," he says. "You can hate it, but you have to be impressed that I actually said all the words."
The show begins with Shepherd sitting at a desk in a modern but shabby office and finding his computer uncooperative. Waiting while it reboots, he comes across a paperback copy of "The Great Gatsby" on his desk and begins reading aloud.
Soon, co-workers begin leaning over to help recite a few lines of dialogue. Then they do it with more feeling and without the text. And before you know it, the alchemy is complete: The cast members have become the characters – his boss is Gatsby and Shepherd has become Nick Carraway.
"When I get to the end, I'm completely exhausted but also too excited to rest. It takes one or two drinks afterward before I really collapse," says Shepherd. "I suppose it could be harder if I didn't like the text so much."
"Gatz," which takes its name from Jay Gatsby's real name, is not really a full-on dramatic adaptation, nor is it a staged reading. It's something else entirely, and even Shepherd has trouble labeling it.
"It does challenge description a little bit. When I've tried to describe it sometimes I feel like, `Oh, this is sounding kind of hokey. The book comes to life in this office?'"
Well, yes. "Gatz," created and performed by the envelope-pushing company Elevator Repair Service, has been performed over 100 times and was last in New York for a 10-week stand at the Public in late 2010. It returned for 28 shows this week.
Shepherd, who most recently starred in a revival of Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot," says it's nice to revisit "Gatz" after a pause and see how he can deepen the work. He says he rehearsed without the book "for fun."
"Your brain works differently when you're looking at the words and when you're not," he says. "Sometimes during the show, when I feel like I've gotten into a rut or something's gotten stale about the way I'm saying a paragraph, then I'll try and blur my eyes or look to another part of the page so that I'm not really reading and that sometimes helps."
Friends have been known to take advantage of his gift for memorization. At fundraisers and bars, Shepherd's intimate knowledge of "The Great Gatsby" has been tapped in a unique way.
"It's a game that we call Stump the Freak," he says. "You hand the book to someone at the party and they find four or five words in a row and then I continue from wherever they stop."
Maybe Shepherd, 43, a Southern-raised, Ivy League educated actor, has a brain that's wired differently. Before he memorized "The Great Gatsby," he performed all the parts in a one-man "Macbeth."
"Scott is really a savant. He's an extraordinary actor and an extraordinary mind," says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, who once invited Shepherd to help on a theater project in which a scene was performed in Mandarin. Shepherd phonetically memorized the entire part.
"We had a room full of Mandarin speakers and they all knew that Scott didn't speak a work of Mandarin. He got up and did a 5-minute scene. When the scene was over, every Chinese person in the room started screaming. They had never heard anything like it. They said he sounded like a native speaker," says Eustis. "He's got an ear – it's really a natural treasure."
For his part, Shepherd is modest, pointing out that in "Gatz," he always has the novel on hand to refer to. "The show is very kind to me in that I'm reading the book the entire time," he says. "As long as I keep turning the pages, the show will continue."
Born in Raleigh, N.C., and raised outside Atlanta, Shepherd did fringe theater at Brown University and found himself in New York after stints in Vermont and Seattle. "I was lost at the beginning. I was drifting like a cork on the water," he says.
Now he's a member of two well-regarded theater groups: Elevator Repair Service and The Wooster Group. He joined ERS in 1994 after meeting members of the troupe in Central Park playing Ultimate Frisbee. He first performed with The Wooster Group in 1997 in "The Hairy Ape" and became a part of the permanent company two years later.
His career is getting breathless now, thanks in part to his tour de force in "Gatz." After his stand at The Public Theater, he heads to London to perform "Gatz" and a production of "Troilus and Cressida" in Stratford-upon-Avon and the West End as part of a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Wooster Group.
"These past couple of years have been amazing," he says.
On a more personal note, he insists his mind isn't a steel trap. "I'm terrible at remembering appointments or names," he says. It's only if the text he's asked to memorize is beautiful that he'll commit the superhuman effort of learning all of it.
"I guess I'm drawn in when something real is happening," he says. "I guess I'm always looking for a way to weasel out of some of the pretending that's required in acting."