note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
After seeing New York City experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service’s brilliant, two-part, avant-garde production of “Gatz,” and having read Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” years ago, I eagerly anticipated seeing “The Select,” a 3-1/2-hour adaptation, at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Mainstage last week.
Unfortunately, this drawn-out, tongue-in-cheek production, directed by John Collins, has more downs than ups. The play premiered at the Edinburgh Festival last summer and received promising reviews; but Bostonians were less receptive. Several people walked out after the first intermission, and others grumbled about the pace, poor acoustics, sound system, repetitive antics, including the group’s signature choreography, and overdone inebriation.
The play is strangely divided, with two intermissions within the first two hours, followed by an uninterrupted, uncomfortable stretch that needs editing.
At times the actors are shouting, shrieking, speaking much too fast, as in the case of Robert Cohn’s possessive, older girlfriend, Frances, (Kate Scelsa), who spurts indescribable babble.
Elevator Repair Services’ modus operandi “combines elements of slapstick comedy, high- and low-tech design, literary and found text, common objects, discarded furniture, and its own style of choreography.” The narrators are also actors, who generally fuse both roles seamlessly.
Instead of elaborate sets, designer David Zinn uses a handsome background that serves as a cafe-bar-restaurant-bistro, with only tables and chairs for props, doubling as beds, taxicabs, and in one case, a raging bull, as an actor steers a long table with bull’s horns on one end. Therefore, lighting and sound effects are imperative, which designers Mark Barton, Ben Williams and actor Matt Tierney provide with relish. Adding comic touches are a typewriter that keeps going after narrator-writer Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) stops typing; alcoholic drinks that deft waiters pour with finesse, sounding like rippling waterfalls; the glory and fury of a bullfight in Pamplona; and more.
The play is set in post World War I- Paris and Spain, when the “lost generation” of debauched, disillusioned, desultory American writers, artists, and the wealthy wasted away amorally, besotted.
The cast, with several members playing multiple smaller roles, is a menagerie of mistypes that would make Hemingway cringe. Instead of glorious 19-year-old bullfighter Pedro Romero portrayed as a jaw-dropping Adonis with whom gorgeous, promiscuous, twice-married, 34-year-old Lady Brett Ashley is infatuated, petite Susie Sokol as the confident bullfighter is cartoonish. She’s overwhelmed by stately Kaneza Schaal portraying older, experienced, fading bullfighter Belmonte.
Although Lucy Taylor as Lady Brett is attractive, she doesn’t measure up to mesmerizingly beautiful Ava Gardner in the 1957 movie that co-starred handsome Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Brett is supposed to be irresistible, an elegant creature surrounded by an adoring male entourage. In “The Select,” she wears the same navy blue dress most of the time, or a white-knit dress, bobby sox and laced-up flats.
Besides his cool sound effects, Tierney is also effective as Jewish Princeton grad, novelist Robert Cohn. He’s stereotypically morose, self-conscious, and utterly smitten with Brett.
While Hemingway’s 1926 novel vividly depicted these devil-may-care miscreants, he and this stage adaptation also painted an ironic, sad story of two people - Jake and Brett - who desperately love each other but can’t consummate their relationship because Jake is impotent, due to war injuries. As Jake patiently stands by, comforting Brett, aching for her, she flits from man to man, breaking hearts along the way.
Unfortunately, in this uneven production, the sun also rises - and sinks.