In the booze-soaked subculture of “The Select (The Sun Also Rises),” life is a cabernet.
Without the liquor bottles, martini glasses, wine goblets and beer bottles that are poured or passed around ad infinitum over the course of this enrichingly evocative stage compression of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, you come to feel that the characters might have nothing of any material significance to engage or sustain them.
It’s alcohol’s delirious powers that level the painful bumps in the lives of these Lost Generation souls, men and women who have survived World War I with instincts intact only for adventure and getting “tight.” Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson), the newspaperman left impotent by a war injury; Brett Ashley (Stephanie Hayes), the British swell joylessly juggling lovers; Robert Cohn (John Collins), the dour Jewish literary striver who latches pathetically onto others: They’re tossed together in Hemingway’s colorful roman à clef, traipsing across France and Spain with an open spigot of spirits to keep them going.
Hemingway lovers will find much to savor in this inventive account of “The Sun Also Rises,” which uses the author’s words exclusively, edited down to 3 hours 15 minutes of exposition. The early sequences of the production, brought to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre by New York-based Elevator Repair Service, are a bit slow going: As with many a novel, you have to be willing to stick with it. On Monday night, a sizable chunk of the audience lost patience and left at intermission. Which is a shame, because those who stayed were immersed ever more compellingly in the troupe’s stagecraft, an enjoyable grab bag of sound effects and other imaginative narrative devices, orchestrated by director Collins.
Elevator Repair Service visited Washington in 2014 with “Arguendo,” a flawed effort at applying its word-for-word style to the oral arguments in a U.S. Supreme Court case. It proved to be an overly glib affair. Far better was the verbatim production that in 2010 put on the map an experimental theater company that’s been performing in Lower Manhattan since the 1990s: “Gatz,” a six-hour dramatic enactment of the entirety of “The Great Gatsby.” That radically exhaustive effort revealed the breadth of poetic opportunity for the stage in full literary texts conventionally perceived as requiring heavy translation.
“The Select,” which takes its name from a Paris cafe frequented by the characters, does not go to the lengths that “Gatz” did; many of the descriptive passages, all in Jake’s voice, have been trimmed considerably. But huge portions of Hemingway’s language are recited on the Lansburgh stage, from the accounting for the unconsummated passion between Jake and Brett, to the marvelous descriptions of bullfights in Pamplona, one of the novel’s triumphs. As much of what has been excised consists of redundant dialogue and extended bits of travelogue, the emphasis on conciseness here is welcome.
Some of the performances are stronger than others, though, and as a result the clashes of personality — heightened, of course, by everyone’s heavy drinking — sometimes lack the intensity one could wish for. The becoming Hayes is especially adroit at embodying Brett’s uncalculated cruelty, the air of detachment she conveys in keeping multiple men on the hook, while Pete Simpson is terrific as Brett’s ostensible fiance, Mike, a supercilious English sot who’s never not in an altered state. Robert Johanson, too, acquits himself well in the role of Bill Gorton, a writer whose natural exuberance doesn’t need a pitcher full of Pernod but indulges in it anyway.
Iveson’s Jake, the play’s toughest assignment, grows on you; what at first might come across as a low-energy performance gains in strength as the dimensions of Jake’s pitiable tragic affliction become clearer. The sorest acting spot is the director’s wooden portrayal of Robert Cohn: he’s drawn as a more curiously, even dynamically irritating figure in the novel; here, when Simpson’s lacerating Mike asks Robert why he is sticking around, you’d be forgiven for wondering, too.
Collins is completely convincing from a directorial vantage point. On David Zinn’s utilitarian set, an all-purpose, wood-paneled bar, scenes are staged with an assurance that smartly conjures the seediest of interiors and most exalted of landscapes. Best of the inventions comes late in the evening, when Jake and company attend the bullfights of the celebrated matador Pedro Romero (a superior Susie Sokol), and Pedro’s adversary in the ring is portrayed by a cleverly accessorized prop.
The exhilaration that inebriation engenders is captured in some lively sequences by dance and movement coach Katherine Profeta. If you’re besotted by Hemingway’s language — or just tickled by the idea of a theater company totally immersing itself in a good book — you’ll be happy to drink up, too.
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) created and performed by Elevator Repair Service, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway. Directed by John Collins. Sets and costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Mark Barton; sound, Matt Tierney and Ben Williams; dance and movement, Katherine Profeta; production stage manager, Maurina Lioce. With Kaneza Schaal, Kate Scelsa, Gavin Price, Vin Knight. About 3 hours 15 minutes. Tickets, $49-$118. Through April 2 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org .