How do you cram 639 pages of 'Kavalier and Clay' on-stage?

Book-It's latest does just that with four acts, two intermissions and a 40-minute dinner break. Why this one is worth the time commitment.
Crosscut archive image.

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," now playing at Book-It

Book-It's latest does just that with four acts, two intermissions and a 40-minute dinner break. Why this one is worth the time commitment.

Consider the chutzpah required to steering the production of a play based on Michael Chabon’s epic novel from 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The book is 639 pages long. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s also the sort of book with legions of fans ready to excoriate you if you get things wrong.

But directorial duties were embraced by Myra Platt, Book-It’s founding co-artistic director who, truth be told, had never actually read the book before.

“I knew his [Chabon’s] work. I started the book years ago, but when we couldn’t get rights to it, I put it down,” Platt explains.

“I’m also a very slow reader. I read every word aloud in my head. That can be a handicap being in this position.”

But the theater eventually did secure permission and what’s on stage now is the first-ever theatrical adaptation. It’s also Book-It’s — and Platt’s — most ambitious project: Four acts with two intermissions and a 40-minute dinner break. The show requires a 5-hour commitment from audiences, which, according to critics as well as those who’ve seen it (myself included) is so well worth it.

“I was terrified. I had huge doubts. I went through 'Oh My God, I’m Insane' phases,” Platt admits about this particular endeavor, which took a couple of years as opposed to the 7-year incubation period behind Book-It’s 2010 production of The Cider House Rules.

Crosscut archive image.Over the years, Platt (at right) and theater partner Jane Jones, with whom she co-founded the theater company, have equated their world premiere productions to child birth.

“It’s a very female-centric way of looking at it, but when you’re focused on the whole development of a production, it’s like a baby being in the womb. Then you go through stages of tech, which is the transitional stage: going into labor. And then you have to keep pushing and pushing even when you don’t want to anymore. So Jane comes in at the end and coaches.”

Chabon’s novel tells the story of two Jewish cousins — one from Brooklyn, the other from Prague — who team up in the 1940s to create a comic book character called The Escapist. The book is a celebration of inked drawn adventures, the creative process, familial and romantic love, Jewish mysticism and magic.

The storyline journeys from a Brooklyn apartment, to an office in the Empire State Building, to the Long Island suburbs, to a home in Prague and even a naval base in Antarctica — all of which are wondrously translated to Book-It’s stage.

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Platt ended up loving the book.

“It’s so imaginative,” she says. “The relationships are so clear. You care about everybody. And I loved how he blurs the lines between when I’m reading chapters of the comic book and then you realize, 'Oh, I’m actually reading the story.'”

Then there’s Chabon’s language. “I kept circling words and wondering what they meant and then I realized he made them up.”

Those big complicated words, however, didn’t translate well to stage. And that was part of the challenge: how to whittle down such a huge novel into something that could be performed under 4 hours.

“Our mission is to not only celebrate the author’s intent, but we also recognize that readers do come in with an expectation to see a book that they know and love,” Platt says.

So a key ingredient in the scriptwriting process (Jeff Schwager adapted the novel) was to determine, as a team, what are “the purple passages” in the book, Platt explains. Purple as in royal, those must-have storylines that a play can’t do without.

When the team realized they couldn’t squeeze everything into three acts, the decision was made to add a fourth. The result is a marvel of entertainment from start to finish, a credit to each one of the 18 actors and the behind-the-scenes production team. Platt finds clever ways of bringing both the sketches and the comic book characters to life. 

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"The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay," now playing at Book-It. Photo: John Ulman

A knockout of a scene sends us to the basement of a New York City library and voila, we meet Luna Moth!

But are you better off having read the book before coming to the theater?  Platt says she’s not entirely sure how to answer that. “I don’t think so. I hope not. I think having read it can enhance the experience because you have an understanding of the world. I hope (regardless) that you can follow the production and you’re not lost.”

Most of the authors, Platt says, do end up seeing the plays. “We’ve really never hugely disappointed authors. Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re just so happy to have the words up there and to have them experienced by so many people at one time.”

Author Michael Chabon lives in Berkeley and he’s been invited to see the production. But Platt says he’s had to decline due to his schedule.

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