Upon entering McCarter’s 1,000-plus-seat Matthews Theater for Elevator Repair Service’s “The Select,” we’re faced with a pleasing set, all dark woods and bottles of booze, and a woman casually sipping her way into intoxication. It’s a potent first image as we take our seats, and it’s an ample metaphor of the expectations of the next three hours. “The Select” is a patient, gorgeous, occasionally mercurial but altogether rewarding, literary beast of a play.
And, in keeping with the Hemingway text from which it’s derived, there’s a whole lot of drinking. Alcohol is as essential a design element to this play as the lighting and costumes.
Adapted from Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Select” follows a collection of expatriates of the post-World War I “lost generation,” trying to find passion and meaning in life through conversation, sex, and generous helpings of booze. And while Hemingway’s language on the page adequately portrayed the lustful malaise of this hunt for purpose, this exquisitely presented production, on tour through theaters across the nation and abroad, provides a full-bodied, lush sense of color and vibrancy to that same quest.
“The Select” hums with life, with pain, with verve, and even a little bit of joyous, mirthful dance as we bounce from bar to bar, Paris nightclub to Spanish revel.
Elevator Repair Service (ERS) has a long history of using great literary works as both inspiration and a set of rules for its theatrical inspirations. The highly celebrated “GATZ” was a hot ticket at every theater it played in the last two years, as a seven-hour word-for-word celebration of “The Great Gatsby” in which Fitzgerald’s novel possesses and collides with a modern office.
Here ERS chooses wisely to edit the text, focusing the story sharply on Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson), our narrator. He opens the evening by describing his friendship with fellow expat Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney) and his complicated romance with Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor). And, while we have a transforming cast of bar hands, Greek businessmen, matadors, sultry suitors, and storytellers, the crux of the play comes back to the three characters, again and again.
The gravity of a generation seeking belonging in a land not its own hovers delicately over the evening, almost wordlessly — and then, in two brilliant moments, explodes forth in dance, first in a boisterous and sexy extended sequence in a Paris nightclub, next during the advent of the Pamplona fiesta in Spain.
The Paris dance sequence is particularly enthralling, and it almost comes out of nowhere in a wonderful moment of “sure, why not?” that would absolutely be at home in the best films of idiosyncratic American director Wes Anderson. It also leads to a wonderful, heartbreaking little scene between Jake and Brett that propels the play forward.
The fiesta sequence is set up almost like a Rube Goldberg machine, with Jake describing each participant and their place in the revel as the company takes its place in neatly arranged rows of chairs. And then “the fiesta exploded,” Jake tells us, and that’s exactly what happens. This is the engine that “The Select” runs on: large patches of exposition and meticulous attention to Hemingway’s text, with the payoff being these fully-realized, nigh-magical sequences of theater at its best.
There is one big misstep of the evening, and it’s not one on the company’s part. This is an intimate work of theater, and the Matthews is an ill-suited venue for it. This play deserves a house that gets the audience right up alongside the action of the work.
With that in mind, however, I wholeheartedly recommend “The Select.” This is one of those plays that, like “GATZ,” will be talked about for a generation as a bold new formative step in theater. No one is doing work like this right now, with the same panache and reverence for the beauty of American literature. And, for one week more, it’s in our backyard. You owe it to yourself to take this play in and discuss it with someone you love, over a long evening with a good bottle of wine. It’s a risk well worth taking, and I wish you the good fortune of experiencing it.
The Select (The Sun Also Rises), McCarter Theater (Matthews), 91 University Place, Princeton, Directed by John Collins. $56 to $100. Thursday through Sunday, November 1 through 4. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.