A telling admission in Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães' magic show Nothing to Hide, at the Geffen Playhouse through Jan. 6, is that shows such as this should be antiquated by now. One of them comes right out and says it: We already live in an era of technological magic, so how can card tricks possibly compete?
Apps on an Android phone tell us in the blink of an eye which roads are clogged and which are open, or how many parking spaces are available on Hollywood Boulevard, or the best Italian or Chinese restaurant nearby. If your Houdini Siberian Husky breaks out the back window, a “Tagg” GPS dog tracker will send you timed reports with a map showing the dog's location.
In such an age, what could possibly motivate people to fight crosstown traffic in order to sit in the dark, among strangers, and watch two men playing with pieces of paper — an entertainment from another century? It's like going to a carnie show, without even the macabre glee that carnie shows used to offer. And yet, under Neil Patrick Harris' direction, the show flows like silk.
By the same token, what could possibly motivate people to sit in a downtown theater for six and a half hours — not including two intermissions and a 75-minute dinner break — to watch actor Scott Shepherd in Gatz read almost the entire, unedited text of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby? (For a brief interlude, Susie Sokol takes over the narration.) The audacity of it is one of the production's many (too many) jokes.
Yet John Collins' epic staging is ultimately magnificent. It's now at REDCAT through the weekend, created and performed by the New York City–based experimental theater company Collins leads, Elevator Repair Service. Shepherd is joined by an ensemble of 12 who, in the context of a dreary, 1980s-era stockroom, containing decrepit couches and swivel chairs, battered desks and file cabinets, drift in and out of portraying Fitzgerald's cast of characters as narrated by Shepherd, himself playing an office drone with time on his hands (and ours) since his desktop computer is on the fritz.
With their very different styles and purposes, both performances stand united in defiance against the constant din about dinosaur enterprises being driven to their graves by inexorable technological “advancements.”
For example, we're told that audiences now have shorter attention spans than ever. There was no evidence of that at REDCAT. Fewer than half a dozen patrons left the overflow theater after dedicating eight hours and 30 minutes to this performance, despite languid stretches of one man simply reading from a book. Audience members ranged in age from 20 to 80.
We're told that people no longer need to read books, at least in print. Tell that to Ann Patchett, whose successful new indie bookstore in Nashville recently landed her on the cover of The New York Times and in The Atlantic magazine. Landlords initially refused her a lease because they thought a store selling print books would fail. But it hasn't failed at all.
Tell that to Aaron Kushner, the ambitious new owner of the Orange County Register, who's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars beefing up his papers' newsrooms, because he believes that the decimation of print newspaper resources has been unprofitable folly, and that further decimation is not the wave of the future, as conventional wisdom would have it, but of the past.
It could turn out that when hedge-fund managers aren't making suffocating demands of financial return on already profitable businesses, old-world bookstores and newspapers and stage productions have a fighting chance. This is at least suggested by the packed houses and standing ovations for both Nothing to Hide and Gatz. Each show taps into a humane and primal delight that might be regarded as anachronistic but is actually timeless. Each show reminds us that we're bonded less by social media than by the common air we breathe when we're all together in one room, or by the beauty of a story well told, even if it's reflectively, languorously told.
There's little point dwelling on the amazement generated when DelGaudio and Guimarães stylishly shuffle a single deck of cards, split the deck, then lay them out silkily on opposite sides of a card table in perfect numerical sequence. The beauty of their 70-minute show lies as much in the rapport between them, a cooperative/competitive edge reminiscent of the gently winking humor in CBS' old The Smothers Brothers Show. That rapport extends to the audience. When DelGaudio needs an audience member to select a card from his deck, he finds a patron in the front row and asks him, ever so politely, “Sir, you look bored as shit. Can you help me out?”
In poking fun at what constitutes “mystery,” DelGaudio folds a secret card and places it in a container onstage. He goes into the audience and has a patron shuffle, then select a card at random from a deck he's holding. (“Looks like you've done this before,” DelGaudio remarks.) He then unfolds the secret card and, of course, it matches the card selected by the patron. “Now that you've seen this card, that experience can never be repeated,” he declares with stoic solemnity.
Guimarães then repeats the routine, down to every nuance, including the “Looks like you've done this before” crack, and “Now that you've seen this card, that experience can never be repeated” — which it just was. The performance isn't so much about cards as it is a riff on the childlike essences of what keeps our attention. And of course how those essences can be recycled, even after a span of five minutes.
If you think this is an argument for the shortness of our attention spans, you must see Gatz. The first two hours contain a sometimes grating mockery of Fitzgerald's source material as the actors, ostensibly employees of the crumbling 1980s firm, use overblown physical gestures that correspond to Fitzgerald's descriptions. One wild party is depicted as farce in the “office” against a backdrop of jazz (sound designer Ben Williams' work is impeccable), with office papers tossed en masse into the sky so they settle like snowflakes into chaos. Those initial, smirking ironies raise the question: Why hold us here for hours staging a novel to which you feel so superior?
Then comes a slow, steady softening, The computer parts of Louisa Thompson's set retract, allowing Fitzgerald's 1920s Long Island and New York settings to emerge through the torrent of words, and the core saga of narrator Nick Carraway (Shepherd) observing his bachelor nouveau riche neighbor James Gatz (Jim Fletcher) — aka Gatsby — struggling awkwardly over his five-year love for beautiful Daisy (Victoria Vazquez), now a married woman.
The novel's tawdry morass of fidelity adrift yields to tragedy — the tragedy of an era and an empire — that yields to a nuanced and beautifully rendered homage not only to Fitzgerald's novel but to the capacity of theater that, when sufficiently trusting, allows us to conjure ragtime opulence from a backdrop of gray and seamy walls, from largely fluorescent lighting (by Mark Barton), from the evocations of background sounds and from the force of words — hours of them, rendered with such patience and wry confidence.
ELEVATOR REPAIR SERVICE: GATZ | By F. Scott Fitzgerald, directed by John Collins | Presented by REDCAT: Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m.; through Dec. 9 | (213) 237-2800 | redcat.org
NOTHING TO HIDE | Written by Derek DelGaudio, directed by Neil Patrick Harris | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Jan. 6 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.org