By Bill Hirschman
After Hamlet, one of the greatest challenges in theater acting is the one-person play depicting a famous personage whose appearance, voice and mannerisms are well known from television or film or paparazzi-documented public appearances.
Unless the actor is a master impressionist such as Frank Gorshin playing George Burns, most efforts wisely choose only to capture the underlying essence rather than try to reproduce an icon when a misstep would destroy the illusion.
Such is this entertaining production of Tru, the play bringing the audience into Truman Capote’s living room for a chatty wit-lathered visit at a crucial moment in his life.
Just as Robert Morse did when the show bowed in 1989, this production’s star Charles Baran evokes the engaging persona of the famed writer but does not try to mimic his unique voice or any other externals. Perhaps they share Capote’s small piercing eyes.
But Baran with Andy Rogow’s direction succeeds in creating this singular outsized creature who could be alternately brilliant, compassionate, cruel, haunted, easily hurt, indestructible, loyal, ego-driven and two dozen other attributes.
And always with a socially-scathing quip: “It’s a scientific fact that every year you live in LA you lose two points on your IQ.”
Working with Jay Presson Allen’s 1989 assemblage of Capote aphorisms, one-liners and writings, they have captured the small town Southern boy from a deeply troubled family who built himself into the epitome of urban sophistication. And for all the appearance of him being an integral citizen of the playground, Baran and Allen make it clear that Capote sees himself as an outsider wryly reporting on a shallow world of glitz that he insists that he doesn’t actually belong to – although you suspect the lady doth protest too much.
As he admits himself, he first became famous for being a writer, then was famous simply for being famous.
But Allen’s script – in which Tru directly regales the audience with stories of his life – meanders and flits like a honeybee with ADD. It might reflect Capote’s fractured mental state, but it fails to build a coherent arc and thereby robs the actor of a clear character development or life-changing realization. When Tru girds himself at the finale to enter the outside world, there’s no sense how or why or if he has turned any emotional corner. What Baran and company have given us is an eavesdropping portrait of a moment in time, not a biography.
The play visits Capote on the day before Christmas Eve 1975 in his East Side apartment. His creative life is foundering. One of the finest American writers of the 20th Century is aware that he is now best known now for his celebrity: “The only thing being famous is good for is cashing your checks in a small town.” While he has written acclaimed works of literary quality, he wallows in gossip as if it’s life’s blood.
And now matters have reached a tipping point. A chapter of his never-to be-finished novel Answered Prayers has been published in Esquire. Its thinly veiled depictions of some of his closest friends in New York’s high society has enraged them as a betrayal of his long-standing status as their confidante and lapdog. Several including “Babe” Paley and “Slim” Keith have cut him off dead. This matters because from Tru’s point of view, they were among his closest friends.
On one level, he claims to be mystified at their feelings of being betrayed. After all, he avers, any friend of an artist knows everything is grist for the mill. But deeper down — and he never quite acknowledges this but must know it subconsciously — he has abused their trust as he has often used people around him in the past.
Indeed, he glances off his ego-enhancing dependency on these socialites and powerbrokers: “You can’t really own anything. You can never own another person.” Then he pauses. “But a person can own you.”
And now instead of being invited to their holiday celebrations, he is nursing his wounds in his abode, nervously occupying himself with minutia, playing jazz on the cassette player, happily schmoozing on the phone with second tier buddies, even talking to himself, which is the conceit that explains why he is recalling vignettes from his life for imaginary visitors, us in the audience.
“They want me to grovel… I am an artist and I am writing a masterpiece,” insists.
Still, his jocular repartee on his lifeline telephone or speaking to us is peppered with crafted drollery like, in dissing a floral gift, “Poinsettias are the Bob Goulet of botany.” His laugh shows no one appreciates his jokes more than he.
While Baran makes Capote perfectly aware that he is being waggish and witty, he makes the non-stop flow of bon mots and quips seem to be naturally occurring to Capote as his regular manner of expression – not at all like the studied quips that the Algonquin Round Table folks practiced for days before unleashing them for friends.
Capote is also his own best publicity agent, bragging on his abilities including athletic prowess and business sense.
“I have lived an astonishing life and I’ve known everybody.” He does not namedrop, but in telling stories about his acquaintances and intimates, he knowingly breezes past boldface names like Princess Margaret, Marilyn Monroe, Swifty Lazar, Gloria Vanderbilt, Lee Radziwill, Garbo, Johnny and Joanne Carson. He notes, almost bragging, he is the only person to have known Sirhan Sirhan and Robert Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy, plus four of the five victims in the Tate/Manson murders.
As the time slips into Christmas Eve, Capote’s alcoholism – and indulgence in cocaine, pills and marijuana – encourage the morphing stories which intentionally alternate as if he tossing off melancholy for dry wit. A long section in which he identifies with prisoners on death row whom he has seen hanged and how he lives with dreads, suddenly gives way to him talking about a gift of swatches from a friend.
In context of him reading aloud an excerpt of the lovely short story, A Christmas Memory, based on his own childhood, he adds in a unbidden postscript to us that that his mother killed herself at Christmas – and that friends Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and “Babe” Paley all tried to kill themselves.
Capote’s evening and Allen’s script slowly slide into melancholy which leads to the aformentioned inexplicably unsupported fade out from a dramaturgical point of view. While Baran does justice to Capote, truthfully, he does not have that unique quality of vibrance that made Capote impossible to ignore even at a crowded Studio 54 discorama.
Still Baran and Rogow make Capote someone you enjoy spending an evening listening to him regale you with stories of a world in which beautiful intelligent lonely women hypocritically love gossip – so long as it’s not about them.
Tru plays through May 7 at Empire Stage (in association with Baran-Bookman Productions), 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale (two blocks north of Sunrise, east of railroad tracks). 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Running time 1 hour 45 minutes including one intermission. Tickets $35 plus fees. Call 954-678-1496 or visit http://www.empirestage.com/event/tru/