When the actor Jim Fletcher talks about F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, it is with the same mixture of familiar intimacy, sublime awe and wary respect that an experienced Himalayan mountain guide might use to describe the shimmering icefalls and man-eating crevasses of that range's most famous peak. “The Gatsby,” Fletcher habitually calls it. It's a familiarity that the actor has earned.
For nearly eight years and two hundred-plus performances, Fletcher has portrayed the novel's titular Jazz Age hero in what might well be the Everest of American theater — Gatz, the monumental, word-for-word, nearly seven-hour staging (eight including dinner break) of Fitzgerald's prose masterwork by New York avant gardists Elevator Repair Service. The company is finally bringing the show to REDCAT this week for nine performances of what has already been called the most remarkable achievement in theater of this century.
Apart from his own background as a writer (Fletcher is a co-author of the 2005 experimental novel Reena Spaulings by the international art collective Bernadette Corporation), the actor brings to the production something of an additional, life-imitating casting coup — his own, real-life father, the renowned Washington D.C. cardiologist and V.A. Medical Center Chief of Staff Dr. Ross Fletcher, has been playing Gatsby's fictional father, Henry C. Gatz, for as long as Jim Fletcher has been playing the son.
LA Weekly recently spoke by phone to both men about their involvement with Gatz and what it was like for the father to embark on such an improbable and acclaimed second act in his American life, following in the footsteps of his celebrated son.
“I gotta say that it wasn't my idea at all,” Jim Fletcher says about his dad joining the cast. “I didn't know about it at all until it was a done deal — a fait accompli.” Exactly who's idea it was is unclear. Some credit the suggestion to the show's star, Scott Shepherd, who play's the book's narrator, Nick Carraway. What seems beyond dispute is that in 2005, as E.R.S. was preparing to take the staging out of the workshop and put it before the public, the show was still searching for a Henry Gatz who bore a convincing physical likeness to its Jay Gatsby.
According to Ross Fletcher, the call came from Gatz director John Collins while the doctor was visiting in New York. “He said they were looking for someone who looked like Jim's father,” Ross remembers. “I said, 'Well I fit that bill, but I don't fit any other bill. I don't know how to act.'” Nevertheless, he instinctively did what any actor would do in the same circumstance — he rushed over to the Strand Bookstore, bought a copy of Gatsby and checked to see how long the part was.
“And it wasn't so terribly long, and I did think I could memorize it,” he recalls. “I've memorized a lot of things in my life in medicine, and it looked like I could probably get at least that step.” Still, the acting bug had only half-bitten and Ross resisted. The clincher came in a meeting with Collins that happened to include Jim's seven-year-old daughter. “And she looked up and said, 'Grandpa, you can do it. Do it Grandpa.' And I thought to myself, someday I'm going to say to Shawna, 'Shawna, do it.' And she'll say, 'Well you didn't do this, so I don't have to do that.'
“I heard about it when everybody else did,” Jim recalls. He claims he took the news stoically. “I'm like that. I stick to my job as an actor. Whoever they bring in, I'm going to embrace that. And whatever they do, I embrace that too. I'm not going to tell them who to cast or how to direct and tell other people how to act.” But, he admits, “it was strange.”
“I'm sure if [Jim] said he didn't want to see this happen, I would not have gone onstage,” the father counters. “So while he says he didn't have much to do with it, he was, I'm sure, allowing it. He basically said to me, 'If you don't want to do this dad, just don't do it. That's okay. That's just fine.' But it was obviously indirectly his ascent.
Needless to say, the doctor-turned-actor was no overnight Brando. “My first appearances, I was just glad I could get through the lines,” he admits, “and I actually sometimes made some fairly serious but not generally obvious blunders.” But after seven years, he continues, “not only have the lines become [embedded] deep in my brain and probably impossible to discard any longer, but they've become very fast and quick. So feeling the emotion of the event is much easier to do, and I think I've probably gotten much better at doing that.”
The son readily agrees. “He's become quite a performer — a seasoned performer,” Jim says, at least if the evolution of his father's post-show comments is any measure. “It used to be, 'Oh that was perfect. I didn't say a single word wrong.' And I'd be thinking to myself, 'Well, that's not perfect.' Now he's very sophisticated about the connection between him and Scott, and hearing what's going on in the house, and listening to the story as it unfolds, and timing, his sense of time onstage.”
The show's filial overlay of real-life with fiction has apparently struck a resonant chord with audiences. According to Ross, “people will come up to me and say, 'When you're on the stage, I start to cry.' And I say to myself, 'If they're starting to cry, then I've done the job right.' Because that's exactly what's intended. [As Henry] I really feel bad about the loss of Jimmy Gatz, who I thought was going to cure the world of its ills.” For his part, Jim Fletcher admits that “if people cry during Gatz, it's usually not during my stuff, it's during [Ross'] scenes. He's a scene-stealer is what he is. I didn't know that about him.”
Perhaps the strangest aspect of working for seven years in the same show with Ross is that Jim has still never actually seen his father act. By the time of Henry Gatz's appearance, Jay Gatsby is already dead, and Jim plays the scene with his eyes closed, laid out on a couch behind Ross and Scott Shepherd. The actor compares the experience to his upcoming appearance in a London production of Forced Entertainment's Sight is the Sense That a Dying Person Tends to Lose First. “It's kind of one of those experiences,” he says. “I'm dead but I can still hear people talking. And that's when he comes in, and it's intense.”
Gatz runs at REDCAT through Dec. 9.