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Humor and humanity enliven 'The Select'

Watching wealthy, bored people trying to have fun while being drunk all the time is not as exciting as it sounds.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Watching wealthy, bored people trying to have fun while being drunk all the time is not as exciting as it sounds.

The pointless activities of affluent people may have seemed more glamorous back in 1926, when Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Sun Also Rises," a novel about disillusioned, post-World War I American expatriates living and traveling in Paris and Spain.

"The Select (The Sun Also Rises)" is an adaptation of Hemingway's novel by the highly creative New York-based theater ensemble, Elevator Repair Service, the group responsible for last season's resoundingly successful "Gatz" at the Public Theatre.

Currently performing off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop downtown, "The Select" is less compelling overall than "Gatz," although it's imaginative and well-acted, with entertaining moments of high drama.

The production selectively uses Hemingway's notably terse prose to good effect, although recitations of taxi-cab routes and characters' discussing how they went to bed and slept fitfully don't always make for riveting theater, despite the best efforts of director John Collins to keep the actors in constant motion.

While "The Select" mocks the nonstop boozing, casual sex and thrill-seeking of Hemingway's jaded group of acquaintances, Collins and the troupe of ten actors also find many touches of humor and humanity in the macho dialogue and flatly-written characters.

Slightly-built Mike Iveson seems ironically chosen to portray the narrator and supposedly swaggering, war-wounded hero, Paris-based journalist Jake Barnes. Despite wearing a bemused smirk, Iveson manages to show a vulnerable side to Jake, who is often cruelly dismissive with his friends but tenderly caring with the woman he loves.

The story centers on the desperate attraction of Jake and other men to fickle, unhappy Lady Brett Ashley (an energetic, increasingly haunted performance by Lucy Taylor). One such hapless man is a Jew named Robert Cohn, played with understated excellence by Matt Tierney. Cohn's depressed outsider character inspires casually anti-Semitic remarks by most of the others, foreshadowing the terrible events of the coming two decades

Kate Scelsa as Frances, an insecure divorcee, creates a memorable scene when her character becomes hysterically angry at her erstwhile fiance. Ben Williams gives a warm, likeable quality to Jake's manly buddy, Bill Gorton, and Vin Knight is very funny as a wealthy but foolish count.

Much of the first act takes place in The Select cafe in Paris, where this dissipated group hangs out and exhibits their desperate gaity. David Zinn designed the attractive period costumes and the impressive set for the cafe, a wood-paneled barroom complete with photos of boxers. Typical of smooth ERS staging, the bar tables become beds and the cafe chairs transition into vehicles.

A lively dance scene in the cafe demonstrates how the characters are trapped within their own boredom, as they're forced to interrupt themselves and leap up to dance like puppets whenever the music starts again. Aside from that frenetic dance, though, the first act at times seems sluggish. Things get more interesting in the second act, when the group leaves Paris and heads to Spain, where Jake engages in some amusingly slapstick fishing, and everyone joins a weeklong fiesta in Pamplona centered around bullfighting.

The cleverly-enacted bullfighting scene features a long table on wheels, (steered by Williams) as the bull, and, in an inspired anti-macho touch, two women (Kaneza Schaal and Susie Sokol) as the male matadors. Sokol is particularly engaging, strutting around as a sexy young matador who captures Brett's fancy.

Detailed sound design by Matt Tierney and Ben Williams includes everything from musical interludes to the roaring of the crowd in a giant bullring, aided by Mark Barton's targeted lighting. All elements of the production enhance the sense of doomed romance and aimless lives increasingly spinning out of control.