The on-going fascination with Jay Gatsby, the human mirage at the heart of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby, is understandable. He's a suave and hypnotic man of mystery who shows up out of nowhere with oodles of money and a monomaniacal fixation on one woman: Daisy Buchanan.
Hollywood actors such as Alan Ladd and Robert Redford have swung and missed at pinning down the Gatsby vibe, with Leonardo DiCaprio being the latest to take a swipe at the role. So you know that, if you want to attempt a stage version of the play, using the faithful-to-the-book adaptation written by Simon Levy, you need some killer talent to play Jay and Daisy.
Unfortunately, that's where this production of Gatsby at Ensemble Theatre falls short of the mark. Director Ian Wolfgang Hinz has done stellar work with many recent plays at Ensemble, including The Iceman Cometh and Anna Christie. But the task before him, trying to evoke the magic of Fitzgerald's creation from Levy's workmanlike but thin adaptation, requires actors who can generate sexual danger and Prohibition-era dazzle all on their own.
Staged in the round on an elegant white floor, the setting seems right. And James Rankin as the narrator Nick Carraway is firmly in control as the story rolls out. Nick is soon swept away in a rush of bootleg cocktail parties and upper-crust grab 'n' grope games, with rumors swirling concerning the wealthy man who bought the giant mansion in West Egg on Long Island.
Much of the scandalous activity centers on Daisy, the young wife of Tom Buchanan, an old money sort living in cushy East Egg across the bay, who is as comfortable with his racist beliefs as he is in his bespoke suit. In order for the play to work, Daisy has to be nearly a force of nature, a glittering and fascinating train wreck. As Daisy, Rebecca Moseley is certainly cute and charming, but she doesn't bring the alluring, magnetic level of self-involvement that should make Daisy at once impossible to look away from and impossible to get close to.
In short, there has to be a "there" there, in terms of a destination for Gatsby, since he is one of literature's most infamous stalkers. He fell in love with Daisy some years before, and now his every move — including the purchase of the big party mansion — is designed to get Daisy back. Indeed, Gatsby has created his entire persona from whole cloth, using his illegal activities in purveying booze to fund his quest. And he has to be the omnipresent elephant in the room.
Instead, in the critical role of Gatsby, handsome Kyle Carthens comes off more like a bashful and deferential sophomore at a college mixer. Early on, with his hands jammed into his pants pockets (not a particularly elegant gesture), and reacting to those around him instead of provoking a reaction, Carthens is more Zelig than Gatsby. He's in many scenes, but is not driving them.
The actors in smaller roles do what they can to shore up the situation. Aaron D. Elersich is sharp and properly contemptible as Tom, using his leverage to make others dance to his tune. But the rivalry and hatred between Tom and Gatsby never really catches fire.
And the all-important story about Myrtle Wilson, Tom's on-the-side squeeze, and her hardworking husband George gets short-sheeted in Levy's attempt to touch all the novel's bases. While Cassandra Mears comes on a bit strong as Myrtle, at least she's taking some chances. And Joseph Milan gives George a focused, blue-collar strength before the rushed and melodramatic conclusion.
Playing Daisy's gal pal Jordan, the pro golfer with questionable morals, Sidney Perelman is brittle and stand-offish to a fault, never finding a way to make her relationship with Nick more than a casual hook-up. So when Nick learns more about Jordan's past, it lands without any emotion attached.
For a director who has made so many right decisions in past productions, Hinz makes some curious choices. While the staging is handsome at first glance, the signature large screens that Ensemble often uses to create a mood are here relegated to space above four of the audience sections. As a result, the projections are often out of sight lines and don't help establish the glitzy, decadent atmosphere the play requires.
And the intermittent scenes when beautiful people are dancing aren't helped by a couple hoofers who are evidently trying to channel Seinfeld's Elaine in terms of awkward moves. Hey, we know white people can't dance, but come on already.
Speaking of the white-black thing, Hinz has cast the African-American Carthens to play Gatsby, and that's just fine. In fact, this casting could have triggered some interesting juxtapositions between him and Tom. But in this production, the actors playing Jay and Daisy don't take the risks that their characters would have grabbed in a moment. And that leaves this Gatsby not nearly so great.
The Great Gatsby
Through Dec. 14 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930,