F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz Age novel, The Great Gatsby, is generally considered a great American novel. It’s been made into several films — none truly successful — and there’s only one stage adaptation authorized by Fitzgerald’s estate. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is giving that script by Simon Levy its regional premiere to launch its 21st season. Staged by Brian Phillips, the production gets the story and the era right, but it misses the potential slam-dunk that Fitzgerald’s tale of deceit and the failure of the American Dream should provide.
The story of Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy Buchanan is narrated by her cousin, Nick Carraway. CSC actor Justin McCombs perfectly embodies this honest observer, framing the story and recalling it with revelatory monologues that provide profound insights into the mores and values of the 1920s.
Nick’s observations are rendered as McCombs steps to the edge of the stage, beyond the dreamscape set designed and evocatively lit by Andrew Hungerford. The shimmering blue-sky backdrop has several metaphorical cracks, revealing plaster and lath, suggesting that Gatsby’s story might be a façade obscuring something not so glamorous as might be imagined at first glance.
Nick is a well rounded, intriguing character, but he’s surrounded by one-dimensional people. Gatsby (played handsomely but monotonously by Jared Joplin) is especially a cipher, a man whose backstory is rife with rumor, innuendo and self-aggrandizement. Singularly motivated by his passion for a memory of Daisy as a sweet young debutante in Louisville, he lacks a moral center.
As Gatsby’s obsession, Sara Clark is vivacious, effervescent and fragile. She’s also indecisive and materialistic — her voice is “full of money” — which motivated her to marry the churlish millionaire Tom Buchanan (Billy Chace captures him as a racist lout). He’s the villain, treating Daisy callously while engaging in a sordid affair with vulgar Myrtle Wilson (Miranda McGee). Nick has a momentary infatuation with manipulative amateur golfer Jordan Baker (Kelly Mengelkoch), Daisy’s friend and confidante, but it doesn’t last.
Nick disdains these shallow people, yet he’s drawn into their world and ultimately cares about Gatsby when others abandon him. The production is true to Fitzgerald’s text, culminating in Nick’s enlightenment regarding the powerful pull of the past. But the passion that should fuel the story’s engine fails to erupt.
THE GREAT GATSBY, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Oct. 4.