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Page to Stage: Jonathan Franzen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rona Jaffe

Three shows I saw within a week or so of one another adapted literary works by well-known authors to the stage for the first time: Jonathan Franzen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Rona Jaffe. It came as an ugly surprise how bad one of them was, and a revelation which was the best.

Page-to-stage adaptations  are hardly an esoteric activity. They number among the most popular works ever put on stage, such as “Les Miserables” the 1985 musical based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel and “Wicked” the 2003 musical adapted from a 1995 novel by  Gregory Maguire. Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, and Guys and Dolls were fashioned from various stories by, respectively, Sholom Aleichem, James Michener and Damon Runyan. “The Heiress,” opening on Broadway November 1, is derived from the Henry James novel Washington Square. Off-Broadway, Ars Nova’s “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” adapts a portion of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The Elevator Repair Service has been at the forefront of something new, verbatim rendering of well-known American novels. They launched this approach with their well-received marathon  “Gatz,” an eight-hour (including intermissions and dinner break) verbatim reading of the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” The company continued it with what I considered their less successful “The Select,” verbatim reading of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”  In both cases, the novels are ripe for a stage adaptation, even a verbatim one. Both books are narrated by a character who figures in the action, and both are full of dialogue.

The Transport Group’s adaptation of  “House for Sale,” Jonathan Franzen’s first essay in his book “The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History,”  takes the Elevator Repair Service verbatim approach – sort of.  Franzen’s essay is a first-person narrative of his return to Missouri after his mother’s death to sell the house in which he grew up, interspersed with various childhood memories and a meditation on his changing role in society. There is little dialogue. So from the beginning, this is a less obvious choice for verbatim treatment. Then director Daniel Fish seems to do everything he can to put a barrier between the audience and Franzen’s words, adding all sorts of theatrical gimmicks and distractions. The five performers aren’t each assigned passages appropriate to a specific character. They recite supposedly at random, based on the director’s manipulation of a series of colored light bulbs. Each actor is assigned a specific color; when that color bulb is lit, it is that actor’s turn to recite. Whether or not, as the program implies, the color scheme changes every night, forcing the actors to be prepared to recite at random, there is a feeling of randomness that does the text no favors.

Fish was more successful in a similar approach earlier this year to the work and words of David Foster Wallace, culled from a variety of Wallace’s texts and interviews. The piece was presented at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City and given the title: “A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN (after David Foster Wallace).”  Each performer recited Wallace’s words immediately after they  heard tapes of Wallace speaking them in the headphones they were wearing. The overflow of words in that production fit better with Wallace’s own garrulous aesthetic.

The creative team at Repertorio Espanol behind the stage adaptation of   “Love In The Time of Cholera” seems more committed to translating the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the stage, rather than using his words for their own purposes. But how to do justice to Garcia Marquez’s  sprawling trickster novel about an obsessive love affair that lasts for 50 years, a book that shifts back and forth in time and tone? Playwright Caridad Svich and director José Zayas, who also partnered to adapt Julia Alvarez’s “In The Time of the Butterflies” and Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits,” present his work in its original Spanish (with simultaneous English captions on the back of theater seats). They add dancing and  original music and poetic monologues.

The lover Florentino enters the stage asking the audience: “What  do  you  want  me  to  tell  you?  The  secret  of  love?” The play is at its most effective when it dramatizes scenes that are in the novel.

You might think that a movie would better handle the shifts, but the current stage adaptation is better than the English-language 2007 movie starring Javier Bardem, if for no other reason than that the theater, unlike film, is as much a verbal as a visual medium. The stage at Repertorio Espanol offers a chance to capture the music of Garcia Marquez’s language.

Last week, I caught the last day of the stage adaptation, by the new theater company 95 WordsPerMinute, of Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel “The Best of Everything,” at HERE Arts Center. It’s safe to say that Rona Jaffe has a far lower literary reputation than National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen or Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The flap copy of the latest edition of “The Best of Everything” screams: “Before Valley of the Dolls and Sex in the City…the iconic novel of ambitious career girls in New York City.”

When in the opening scene I saw a young woman dressed in a scarf waving longingly in front of a model ocean liner, I could have assumed this was going to be your standard downtown camped up; Valley of the Dolls received a similar treatment years ago.

But director Julie Kramer, who also wrote the adaptation, is after something smarter and fresher. “The Best of Everything” is a book we saw Don Draper reading in the first season of the TV series “Mad Men,” and there was something of a “Mad Women” feel to the production at HERE. The design details are spot-on – those sleek manual typewriters, the hairdos. Though the actors played their roles straightforwardly, the passage of time has invested the dialogue and characterization with the same kind of double consciousness that Mad Men achieves, with more of an emphasis on the  shocking sexism of the era. There was even a moment that I imagine was something of a subtle homage to Mad Men – a pregnant woman drank some liquor.

“The Best of Everything” turns out to be the best…not of everything, but at least of the three stage adaptations of works in print that I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. Is there irony in this, or a lesson?

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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