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On the Culture Front: Gatz, 4000 Miles, Rediscovering the Natural History Museum, and More

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It's heartening that one of the hottest theater tickets of the season is a word-for-word staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Running eight hours and absent of any special effects, Gatz is the polar opposite to Spider-Man and other sensationalist fare that permeates not just Broadway but often off-Broadway as well.

Elevator Repair Service and director John Collins deserve considerable praise for mounting a vivid work that has proved historically impossible to adapt. They're able to highlight the modernity and relevance of Fitzgerald's language without changing a word. The drunken parties of East Egg magically brought to life could easily be happening around the corner from the Public in a library-flanked East Village bar, and that's the marvel of it all. Gatz, Nick, and Daisy could just as soon be us.

The conceit of ERS' production revolves around an office worker (Scott Shepherd) who comes across a copy of Gatsby on his desk one day while waiting for an IT guy to check out his computer. He begins with the first line, then the second, and in no time he's transfixed and his office life fades away as he gets deeper and deeper into the text. Collins stages the whole piece on a dingy modern office set that works in counterpoint to the images the text evokes. It's kind of a brilliant idea because it makes us actively work as an audience instead of just having words thrown at us.

Shepherd and his castmates read the lines with a simple and honest clarity that has just the tiniest suggestion of emotion. There are no big theatrical performances, yet each actor is completely distinguished and an integral part to the rich tableau that accumulates. The time flies by quicker than one might expect, and in the end, the effect is lasting.

By contrast, Dan LeBlanc's superb new play, The Big Meal, distills an entire life into just 85-minutes. Directed by Sam Gold with acute precision, the enormously talented cast navigates the lives of Sam and Nicole from their first meeting to their deathbed goodbye. They're played by three different actors each to give us the fullest sense of the expanse of their lives as they go from a casual hookup to a relationship to marriage to having kids and then grandkids. It's really nothing short of magical to watch the action unfold on the terrifically intimate stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons. LeBlanc's crisp dialogue captures life and all of its painful hilarity in achingly real vignettes. I can't think of a play since Our Town that's captured the fleeting nature of our existence in such a profound way.

Amy Herzog's play, 4000 Miles, depicts a slightly different but highly watchable journey. First seen last season at LCT3, the one-act starring Gabriel Ebert (Leo) and Mary Louise Wilson (Vera Joseph) just got the bump up to the Mitzi Newhouse following a successful run. It's a well-deserved transfer. Herzog's writing has a smart crispness to it that causes the minutes to fly by as we're sucked into her nuanced, beautifully drawn characters. Beginning with Leo's unexpected visit to see his grandma Vera after a cross-country biking trip claims the life of his best friend, Daniel Aukin (who recently helmed The Ugly One at his old stomping ground, Soho Rep) effortlessly glides the action from scene to scene up until it's abrupt ending. The two have an uneasy relationship, and Herzog has enough confidence in her characters to not smooth out the edges, but the ending still feels too sudden. This is partially because we don't want to leave this world, and that's certainly to her credit. Still, there's an unfinished feeling that hangs with me, and I can't help wonder what another five or 10 pages would have added.

On the science front (an area arguably connected to culture that I have woefully neglected), the Beyond Planet Earth exhibit at the Natural History Museum is beyond cool. You can smell a simulation of moon dust, get a glimpse into what a colony on the Moon might look like, and become immersed in the idea that the science fiction fantasies of Star Trek are quickly becoming the reality of the near future. Only one small room of the cavernous exhibit focuses on the history of space travel, leaving the rest to imagine what the future in space will be. Detailed models of living pods depict what life could look like on a Martian crater and how exercise would be a crucial element to survival. That and keeping people from flying out of their beds at night and careening through space.

As serious as the exhibit and the science it displays are, there's a whimsical side to it as well. There's a game that allows participants to blow up orbiting asteroids before they come crashing into Earth, and a photo op in a spacesuit with a beautifully detailed Mars landscape as the backdrop. The attention to detail is so vivid, that I felt myself getting chills as I gazed into the abyss. There's a lot to see in Beyond Planet Earth, so make sure to get your timed entry card early in the day. I had the last slot at 4:30 p.m. and found myself unceremoniously ushered out before I finished.

Also of note, Creatures of Light (a new exhibit that just opened on Saturday) explores bioluminescence in nature. The space it's housed in is very dark to maximize the effect of the luminous creatures, and set to a classical soundtrack, there's a Zen-like quality to walking through the many rooms where you can step into a replica of a glowworm cave from New Zealand then cross a bridge and run through an expanse of space where tiny, magically lit creatures follow your every step. There's also an interactive exhibit showcasing new images of creatures from the deepest recesses of the ocean floor in the Cayman Islands. All in all, quite an adventure for a trip to the Upper West Side.