… so what’ll we do now? …
With The Select, The Elevator Repair Service, an outstanding experimental theater company, has for some reason, created a complete misfire. The adaptation, the acting, the direction, the set — it misses in just about every way possible. How could this have happened given their recent illuminating adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which did everything right?
I didn’t see their Gatz, based on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby but by most accounts that, too, was highly effective.
The Select is about American and British expatriates living in post World War I Paris, a group of sophisticated, feckless bar hoppers (The Select is the bar and these are somehow select people), most of whom manage to get by without having to work — what Gertrude Stein dubbed “the lost generation.” A central tension is the love between the American Jake Barnes, whose war injury makes sexual fulfillment impossible, and the British Brett Ashley – a smart talking “modern woman” who makes love readily with just about every man in sight maybe because she can’t have the one man she wants: Jake. Because or not because? that is the question. Jake works as a journalist, but when ennui threatens to overcome the small group that keep running into one another in Paris, he’s as free as everyone else to go off to Pamplona, Spain to take in the running of the bulls for some excitement.
On the way to the Pamplona fiesta, Brett detours for a brief affair with Robert Cohn (for Hemingway and the “select” crowd he created, her willingness to sleep with a Jew appears to be a gauge of her decadence). Jake and a buddy detour for some Hemingway-masculine-bonding and fishing in the mountains. Eventually the whole tense and bored crew makes it to Pamplona where there continues to be much drinking and Brett enters into an affair with Pedro Romero, the current star matador — she even gets an ear out of it. That affair won’t last but then nothing does — except the earth which abideth forever, as evidently some still thought back in the 1920’s.
The actors, many of whom were so effective in The Sound and the Fury, are miscast here. Jake, the central character upon whom much depends, lacks the defining charisma of a hard boiled, thoughtful newsman. Brett lacks fascinating magnetism that would draw all these men to her. Toward the end, it’s kind of interesting to see a petite actress with a tight pony tail as Matador Romero, dressed as a torero and slashing her red cape at the upended table moved around by another actor, a scene that’s to give us the idea of what a bull fight’s like: but it’s not possible to believe her masculinity would overwhelm Brett. It seems these actors were just more suited for Faulkner than for Hemingway.
The unchanging set is wrong from the start, when it’s supposed to represent a Paris bar/nightclub, in that instead of individual, likely marble, tables it’s is fitted out with long commercial tables with metal legs that would furnish a seminar room in a modest college. The designers may have found it convenient have these inauthentic but multi-purpose tables on hand for non-bar contexts, but when a character supposedly goes to his room to stretch out, he looks like he’s lying down on a very uncomfortable table, and when one of these long tables is upended to represent a fighting bull well … let’s just say it doesn’t convey “bull.”
The play as a whole lacks drive; it’s one thing to represent bored characters, another to bore the audience and, judging by those who did not return after the intermission, I was not alone in checking my watch.
Evidently for The Elevator Repair Company this turned out to be a detour, and I’ll look forward to their getting back on track for their next production, and to their real fiesta.
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) plays through October 23rd at New York Theatre Workshop on 4th Street in NYC’s East Village.