A stage production of Hemingway that, ultimately, satisfies
The first edge-of-your-seat moment in the play The Select (The Sun Also Rises) involves an actor shoving a table around the stage. The scene is a bullring in Pamplona, Spain, and in the hands of the theater troupe Elevator Repair Service, the table is transformed into a snorting, thrashing creature brought down by a handsome young matador.
Yes, this is Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, refigured as a play. This is what Elevator Repair Service does—and did last year in the award-winning Gatz, the company's seven-hour version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, staged at the Public Theater. If it seems like a natural progression from Fitzgerald to Hemingway—their books came out about the same time, and they were friends, even if their styles were arguably opposite—this adaptation from a novel is handled slightly differently.
This adaptation is only half the length of Gatz—clocking in at just over three and a half hours—and it's not a matter of the original book lengths but the adaptations. It feels just as long, though: It's not until after intermission that The Select builds enough forward momentum to reveal director John Collins's talent for finding drama in the printed page. The bullfight is one place where it shows.
Hewing close to Hemingway's text, the first act follows a group of British and American expats wasting their time (and ours) getting soused in the bars of Paris in the 1920s. David Zinn's set, a smoky barroom hung with the remnants of long-past holiday parties, evokes that period; but his costumes, which include sneakers, ripped tights and spangled blouses, set it more specifically in an East Village theater in 2011.
At the center is narrator Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson), a foreign correspondent who seems to spend precious little time at the typewriter. For years he's been smitten with Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor), an idle aristocrat who is rather profligate with her affections. It's not a healthy relationship: Brett constantly makes a mess of her love life, and Jake always rushes in to fix things. But then Jake's friend Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney) falls for her as well, an uncomfortable situation for everyone.
This plot isn't entirely clear as the first act grinds away because of the prodigious amount of barhopping done by Jake. (I know the play is trying to evoke the decadence of the Lost Generation, but a little would have gone a long way there.) Various hangers-on attach themselves to Jake and his friends for a scene or two, but they're not vivid enough to make much of an impression.
All that changes in the second act, when Jake and his pal Bill Gorton (Ben Williams) head down to the Pyrenees on a fishing trip. The quiet as Jake casts his line into the river is the perfect antidote to the cacophony of the first act. The action picks up again when Jake and Bill head down to the Spanish town of Pamplona, where they plan to meet Brett and her fiancé, Mike (Pete Simpson) for the Festival of San Fermín. Robert shows up, and things get out of hand as Mike begins taunting him about his "sad Jewish face."
This production softens some of Hemingway's language, so Bill doesn't refer to Robert as a "kike" here. But Hemingway's anti-Semitism is still evident, as is his antipathy for gays. Jake is not openly homophobic in this version of the story, but Bill, after expressing his friendship for Jake, quickly adds, "I couldn't tell you that in New York. It'd mean I was a faggot." And Hemingway's paradoxical fascination with androgyny is still apparent: Men find themselves attracted to the "beautiful" bullfighter Pedro Romero, who is played with coolness and confidence by Susie Sokol, in a gender-bending role; Brett is boyish, which becomes the basis of her rejection by one of her lovers, but she ultimately takes a shine to Pedro.
In one heartbreaking scene Brett insists that Jake introduce her to the young man, causing Robert to accuse Jake of being her pimp.
I was undecided about Iveson and Taylor early on, but the actors completely won me over by the end. They make it clear that the relationship between Jake and Brett, which seems so hopeless for most of the play, is mutually beneficial. Their last scene together is touching and sad, and completely believable.
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is playing through October 9 at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery. Tickets start at $70 and are available at 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.