By: Mark Rifkin
July 10, 2023: “It was a strange coincidence,” Nick Carraway says in chapter four of The Great Gatsby. Jordan Baker responds, “But it wasn’t a coincidence at all.”
After having seen the New York City premiere of a unique theatrical interpretation of the novel, I believe that both Nick and Jordan are right.
Two words that really get my juices flowing are immersive theater.
It makes the blood boil in some of my colleagues, who stay far away, but give me a transformed warehouse, repurposed navy yard, abandoned building, classic NYC venue, and multiple scenes going on in different rooms and I’m all in, even wearing a relevant outfit if I can manage. Immersive shows also often have bars where you can buy cocktails and mingle with other attendees, even if that’s not your thing. The more you invest yourself in these productions, the more you get out of them.
“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy,” Jordan also says in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz Age novel. The story of a mysterious millionaire, rampant infidelity, Champagne parties out on Long Island, fancy cars, polo, golf, and murder has been adapted into The Great Gatsby – the Immersive Show at the “Gatsby Mansion” in the Park Central Hotel New York in Midtown; it began in London seven years ago and is spreading to other cities around the world. (It is scheduled to run through December 3; tickets range from $79 to $249 depending on what bonus amenities you want to spring for.)
I went to the show last week with my friend Vicky, a Fitzgerald aficionado, and we went for it, resulting in a fabulously fun evening with numerous bizarre and exciting coincidences.
Vicky bought a red flapper dress for the occasion, with a sequined handbag; I went for the traditional tux, as worn by Robert Redford (with white bowtie) in Jack Clayton’s 1974 movie and Leonardo DiCaprio (with black bowtie) in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 remake. Warner Baxter wore a monogrammed suit in Herbert Brenon’s long-lost 1926 silent version. Unfortunately, on this Thursday evening, most of the audience was wearing shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers; the actors appear to be drawn to those who have dressed up, so their loss. At one point, Gatsby stands in front of an underdressed attendee, hiding him from view.
The downstairs space at the Park Central has been reinvented as an Art Deco nightclub with an elegant triangular staircase, a bar and dance floor, a balcony on two sides, and a bandstand in a corner. Various doors lead to other spaces where different scenes play out, from living rooms to apartments to a darkroom. You have to understand going in that you will not see every part of the play, although you also don’t have to have an expert knowledge of the book.
Vicky regularly informed me about what was in the book and what was not and how director Alexander Wright and script consultant S. Dylan Zwickel changed certain plot developments. We also partook of Prosecco and such Prohibition-era cocktails as a bee’s knees and a sidecar. The fashionable set is by Casey Jay Andrews, with boisterous choreography by Holly Beasley-Garrigan, flashy lighting by Jeff Croiter, sharp, glittering costumes by Vanessa Leuck, and enveloping sound by Peter Fitzgerald. The fun original score is by Glen Andrew Brown and Tendai Humphrey Sitima, with arrangements and additional composition by David Sims.
The central narrative is the same, except all the events take place in and around the two-and-a-half-hour party (with intermission, during which there is entertainment). The tale is narrated by Nick (Rob Brinkmann), who has been invited to the shindig even though he barely knows the host, one Jay Gatsby (Joél Acosta). Gatsby is in love with Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Jillian Anne Abaya), who is married to Tom (Shahzeb Hussain), a nasty man with a giant chip on his shoulder who is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Claire Saunders), a lower-class woman married to George (Keivon Akbari), who is working on an important deal with Tom about a blue coupe. Daisy’s best friend, Jordan (Stephanie Rocío), a champion golfer and socialite, hovers on the periphery of several subplots.
The cast also includes flappers and singers Gilda (Anika Braganza) and Kitty Klipspringer (Stephanie Cha), photographer Charlie McKee (Mya Rosado-Tran) and her partner, Lucille (Kiki Burns), shady bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim (Charlie Marcus), drunken library maven Owl Eyes (Jeremiah Ginn), and Joey (Nicholas Caycedo).
Feel free to investigate; in the darkroom, look through the photos scattered about. If there’s a book on a table, pick it up and turn the pages; it just might be a pertinent diary. And if the spinning bottle points to you, be prepared for a truth or dare.
It certainly seemed to Vicky and me that the cast was attracted to people who had dressed up and displayed an obvious desire to participate and not just observe. We bonded first with Gilda, then with Nick, who we followed for most of the show. Our arc also focused on the love triangle of George, Tom, and Myrtle; we barely saw Daisy and Gatsby. In addition, audience members in 1920s-style outfits also connected; we became friends with one couple, an Israeli man and a Finnish woman who we initially thought were part of the play.
Standing out in the excellent cast are Brinkmann, who has just the right mix of innocence and suspicion as Nick; Saunders as Myrtle, who does not want to be seen as just another floozy; Braganza as Gilda, who always seems to be hanging around, ready for a good time; and Marcus, who not only does a fine job as Meyer but shows off his double-trumpet skills.
After the play ends, the bartenders keep pouring drinks, a DJ spins tunes, and everyone is invited to dance. The actors emerge in regular clothing, on their way home or other late-night environs, and engage with willing audience members before leaving.
We bumped into the Israeli-Finnish couple and spoke to them for about a half hour. When Vicky asked them where they had met, they told us Key West, which just happens to be Vicky’s happy place and where she will be going on vacation later this summer.
At midnight, walking toward Grand Central, we saw a young couple in front of us who were talking about the show. The woman didn’t seem to be in the mood to chat, but the guy was rather enthusiastic, discussing the play like he was in the business. I asked if he was an actor, and he proudly declared, “Yes!” I inquired what he’d been in recently and he said he was in a children’s show. “Which one?” I asked, which surprised him. He hesitated before saying, “Pete the Cat,” sure that we’d never heard of it.
“Holy crap!” I burst out. “I’m the managing editor on those picture books.” Vicky chimed in that she was actually working on some of those contracts that week. The guy was absolutely gobsmacked and crazy excited. He was in on some of the gossip surrounding the creators of the book series, so we had quite a conversation. As Pete often says, “It’s all good.
When I got home, I was telling one of our doormen about the show when a woman I used to work with at that same children’s publisher stopped and asked, “Are you talking about my show?” It turns out that she is doing marketing for the play, planning special events and gatherings, and was just returning from the hotel. Next to her was her partner, who was the afterparty DJ we had just listened to.
I think Gatsby would have been extremely proud of how rays from his sparkling party reached out into a steamy New York City night and brought so many people unexpectedly together.