By Tristan Lejeune
Dutiful English major that I was, I reread The Sun Also Rises before taking in The Select, the new Shakespeare Theatre Company adaptation of Earnest Hemingway’s debut masterpiece.
So too did Elevator Repair Service, the company behind this far too slavishly loyal production, going on until April 2 at the Lansburgh Theatre. Slavishly loyal in terms of dialogue, anyways. The music’s wrong, the shoes are wrong, and at least one role has been horribly miscast, but the words, proudly, are all Hemingway’s. The secret skill, however, of his famously sparse and masculine prose — so dry you could use it as kindling — is that it makes the reader do a lot of the work. Not once, for example, does he describe how a line is said (no “-ly” adverbs), so all those choices are in your head. Staging it, those decisions must be made. What once was dry gets wet, and then it no longer burns.
You know the drill: Jake Barnes (Mike Iverson) is an American expat living in Paris in the ’20s. His manly bits were ruined in The Great War, but he still drinks, eats, dances, and drinks again like a proper member of the Lost Generation. Jake and his coterie of Yank and Limey chums wind their way down to Spain for fishing, bull-fighting and other animal metaphors. Like any good fiesta, it climaxes in a mess of sex and violence, and did I mention the drinking?
Most of the rules of theatre can be broken, but one that this critic is a big fan of is never letting your second act go longer than your first. Makes things bottom-heavy. Perhaps: after the fishing trip?
The scenery for all of this — standing in for taxis, rivers and the Pamplona coliseum — is a barroom that looks more Spanish than French, though the show takes its name from a Parisian cafe. Set designer David Zinn uses a light touch, and he found some fitting bull-fighting portraits. I like the pattern on the faux-parquet floor, too, though not the folding bar tables, which look more like a 2006 wedding than a 1926 tavern. When the tables serve as beds, it makes everyone look like an Irish wake, which is no accident; old drinks from several scenes earlier stack up like ghosts.
With the set unchanging, it puts a lot of pressure on the sound team to transport the audience. Designers Matt Tierney and Ben Williams and engineer Jason Sebastian are up to the challenge, conjuring like offstage wizards invisible trains, ocean waves, stampeding bulls and lots and lots of bottles pouring. Monday’s opening night performance, however, was beset with body mic trouble. Flying fish can only get you so far when the cast struggles to be heard.
Iverson does most of the talking himself, and his tone is just right, but I think narration is a mistake here — at all times, The Select feels very close to a stage reading. Everything we need to know can be shown. Tell your story, don’t recite a book. Still, Papa would proud about how sentimental Iverson isn’t.
The best part of the show is Stephanie Hayes’s performance as the gorgeous, insatiable Lady Brett Ashley. Hayes nails the posh accent, the post-flapper hairdo and the stiff upper lip — you can’t take your eyes off her. Also wonderful are Pete Simpson as the British souse Mike and Robert M. Johanson as Bill Gorton. Less so John Collins, who also serves as director, as the tragic Robert Cohn — don’t buy it. And I have no idea why Susie Sokol and her codpiece have been cast as the bullfighter Pedro Romero, unless, perhaps, it’s to help make up for how few women there are in this story.
So, to sum up: Move the act break, kill the narration, and untether more from the source material and The Select could be a decent show. Could it ever be truly great, though? Probably not. This story already has its perfect medium.