Monday, April 29, 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Cort Theatre --- What Went Wrong

I am dropping the third person "writing a review" persona on this post.  I saw Breakfast at Tiffany's on Sunday, April 14, 2013. The show closed one week later on April 21, 2013.  This will serve as a critique of the script and the production rather than a more traditional review.  As the show has closed I will reveal several plot points that in other circumstances would be considered spoilers.

Truman Capote wrote his novella in 1958.  Set in the middle of the second World War it is the narrated tale of Holly Golightly, a teenage girl from a poor, rural background, who ran away first to Hollywood and then to New York, where she makes a living as an entertaining companion to wealthy men.  Mr. Capote preferred that Holly not be seen as a call girl or prostitute, but as an American Geisha. Made into a very popular film in 1961 that updated the setting to the then present day, and gave the narrator and Holly a bittersweet romance and a happily ever after, the film version has become the iconic version of the story, preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  Audrey Hepburn is forever Holly, although she was not really what Capote intended. (He famously wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part).

Theatrically the novella has been adapted several times, most notably in a mid-60's Broadway musical that closed after only four performances.  The current attempts to dramatize the story led to a script by Samuel Adamson for a 2009 production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London and the now closed 2013 Broadway production with a script by Richard Greenberg.  So, what went wrong with the latest adaptation?  Why couldn't Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke sell enough tickets to keep the show going through awards season?

Mr. Greenberg's script is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie in its structure.  It is a memory play recalled by the narrator (Cory Michael Smith), named Fred by Holly and Joe the bartender (George Wendt).  Joe and Fred have always wondered what happened to Holly when she vanished in 1944 and a photograph from present day Africa gives the men hope that she is alive and well.  Flashing back to 1943, Fred, an aspiring writer, moves into a tiny brownstone apartment.  One night, a young woman crawls into his room through the fire escape. Holly Golightly is fleeing one of her clients.  The two strike up a friendship, with Fred developing a crush on Holly.

We are introduced to several characters, including tenants of the brownstone including Holly's former Hollywood agent, her suitors and a rival. When I watched the Broadway production I was struck by the number of secondary and tertiary characters played by the ensemble of twelve actors.  Here is where the first problem with the script occurs.  Hardly any of these secondary characters is fleshed out into a three-dimensional human being.  We don't care about her wealthy suitor Rusty Trawler and when he up and marries Holly's friend and rival Mag Wildwood, there isn't enough dramatic tension for the audience to sympathize with Holly's emotional fury at Mag's betrayal.  The same occurs during her romance with the diplomat Jose.  Even Joe the bartender, who from his appearance in the opening scene leads you to believe that he will play an important supportive role to the two leading characters, barely makes an appearance in the rest of the show.  If Mr. Greenberg had reduced the number of Capote's characters so that the important ones to the story could have a more meaningful existence than the play might have been a more compelling drama.

The narrator, who never reveals his real name, seems to be content to be known by the name bestowed upon him by Holly in honor of her beloved brother. Fred is a bit of an enigma.  He is not the gigolo portrayed by George Peppard in the 1961 film.  Capote hints that he is homosexual and the play does show him being propositioned by a potential employer and being fired from his magazine job for seeking bathroom encounters with men.  But, this comes off in the play as superficial.  We are never allowed to see what makes Fred really tick.  His romance with Holly, when it happens, doesn't have the emotional punch that it should.  Mr. Smith was perfectly adequate given the limitations of the script.

This leads us to Holly.  As portrayed by Emilia Clarke she had the right youthful look and the actress was absolutely stunning in Colleen Atwood's 1940's costumes.  Yet, something was off.  She does not have the problem that Audrey Hepburn had of being too sophisticated to pull off the country hick from Texas masquerading as a posh good time girl.   Ms. Clarke can play a wide range of emotions, simply witness her character's arc from child bride to warrior queen on Game of Thrones. As Holly Golightly Ms. Clarke is missing Holly's barrier of steel that she has built to hide her rather horrific past.  Holly, real name Lula Mae Barnes, was sexually abused as a child (she mentions that anything before the age of 13 doesn't count).  She was married to the much older Doc at the age of 14 and she walked away from her Texas home.  When Doc shows up in New York City to bring her home, Holly jumps into bed with him.  It is a rather disturbing scene.  Murphy Guyer, who played Doc in the production, was folksy and sympathetic as was Buddy Ebsen in the film.  There should be an uncomfortable reaction by the audience to this distasteful revelation about Holly's past.  Like all of Holly's disturbing lifestyle revelations being a child bride just seems another part of the mystery to check off rather than an giving us any deeper understanding about the life Holly fled and is trying to hide.

Ms. Clarke is a very good actress, and she had both a devil-may-care attitude on the surface and genuine vulnerability when the script called for it.  Yet, she just didn't have the art of being the real phony that Holly is described as being  by her former agent, Sid Arbuck.  Given the material, Ms. Clarke was also less likely to attract the fans of Game of Thrones which, coupled with the lukewarm reviews doomed this production to an early demise.

This script and production had potential.  What it would have benefited from were a few regional theater outings where the scripts shortcomings could have been addressed.  Perhaps it or the West End script will get additional outings and the right version of Truman Capote's story will finally get its proper due.

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