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Watching GATZ: Sometimes You Just Have To Go See An 8-Hour Play

04/18/2012 11:24 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012

"Word on the street is you went to see an 8-hour play. WTF?"

I can't decide whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that it seemed completely incongruous to those who know me that I went to the marathon event that is Elevator Repair Service's "GATZ" at the Public Theater.

On the one hand, I'd like to be thought of as smart and serious enough to darken the door of a theater, and not just one that's showing "Wrath Of The Titans" on IMAX; on the other, I don't want people to regard me as, "Oh, yeah, that girl who can't shut up about the transformative power of theatRE."

Maybe I don't have occasion to go to plays that often, but it doesn't mean I don't want to. Plus, I like a challenge. So when I heard about "GATZ," a play in which the entire text of "The Great Gatsby" is read aloud, I thought to myself, "Yes, this is how you go to the theater: whole hog, full force, no net..." or something like that.

The point is, I may be a bit of a boob who spends most of her time watching 90-second web videos and compiling 140-character tweets into slideshows, but that's not ALL there is to me. So not only was I willing to go see this long-ass play, but I also happened to love it. Why? Because of, well, the transformative power of this particular bit of theatre/er.

I'll explain.

First of all, I didn't go see "GATZ" because of any kind of attachment to The Great Gatsby. Like most Americans, I read it in high school, and haven't touched it since. I remember being moved by its story of unrequited love and thrilled by its descriptions of 1920s New York, a smoke-filled, boozy town where rich people scuttled about like fancy cockroaches and you could just rent hotel rooms for the afternoon even if you didn't have an STD. Fascinating stuff, but I wasn't compelled to read it again, especially not after "Twin Peaks" came out. Who cares about the deaths of Myrtle and Gatsby, what happened to Laura?

But when I heard about "GATZ" I was fascinated. What had I missed about this book that would compel a company of actors to read it in full on stage and act it out four nights a week? I knew it had been called the greatest American novel, but Reagan has been called the greatest American president. Opinions can differ.

On a more basic level, I also wanted to know why any play would be so long. Was it merely a gimmick, an audacious display of theatrical stamina? Had I stumbled onto some kind of weird "my theater company is more badass than yours" pissing contest, and if so, how would Steppenwolf retaliate? A 7-day production of the Oxford Dictionary set in a DMV?

What I was stunned to learn, pretty much from the first entrance of Scott Shepherd (who plays both the nondescript office drone who finds a tattered copy of Gatsby on his desk as well as narrator Nick Carraway), was that there is a genuine and simple force at work behind "GATZ." It's almost so basic I hesitate to name it: a willingness to get lost in something, to daydream, to be distracted by an unexpected loveliness. Perhaps it's that thing we often describe as being in the moment or stopping to smell the roses.

Shepherd never seems to question why the book is on his desk. He takes it up as a way to pass the time while his computer reboots, and within a few moments, everything else either fades away or becomes part of the story. It's almost as though the book is a snow day he didn't see coming, and its arrival means that all of his plans could be put on hold.

Fitzgerald's writing is as good a reason as any to be driven to distraction. But what struck me most about the book itself was how different it was hearing it as an adult. I didn't like these people. They're rich and frivolous, and serve very little use to their fellow man. Theirs are the original #whitepeopleproblems. But, wow, did Fitzgerald ever write them like they mattered.

As Nick Carraway is the passenger in Gatsby's story, Shepherd's office guy is the passenger in Fitzgerald's story. Along the way, he picks up the rest of the people he works with and very soon they've all decided to take this trip together. As they read and act out the book, you alternately see them as Fitzgerald's characters as well as people who have become so engrossed in a text that they are emotionally involved with it. It becomes simultaneously a love letter to the joy of language and a eulogy to a time that was, in effect, our country's teenage years.

In realizing all of this, I suddenly discovered the meaning of the play, at least for me. There is so much we experience (or endure) when we're young that we miss half of it. I read so many books I don't remember, I only have flashes of them: a horse's skull being crushed with a hammer in The Red Pony, a pig standing on its hind legs and wearing pearls in Animal Farm, a boy's head being smashed with a rock in Lord of the Flies (has anyone noticed how much head crushing there is in middle and high school English classes?).

But beyond just the books there's everything else I've forgotten: the sound of my grandfather's laugh, how my dog Pepper's fur felt, why I ever liked the taste of mayonnaise and banana sandwiches.

Gatsby wanted to reclaim something; "GATZ" also wants to reclaim something. It wants to slow everything down and allow us the time to be so involved with something that we remember it, in detail, with every sense. How often do we give ourselves that opportunity?

I could say all of the things about "GATZ" that other reviewers have said: the acting is superb, you'll walk away feeling like Scott Shepherd is the single most soulful person on earth, the staging is engrossing (I loved that the sound guy is on stage and also a character), and that this is important, mortally important, theater/re.

But I keep coming back to the same place: that this play and the people in it, the characters they become, then cease to be and become again, have haunted me in the most wonderful way. Sometimes, you merely have to know that there's something to long for to feel human again.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go tweet about this. BRB.