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NEW YORK — It might be time to call for a moratorium on stage adaptations of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Producer David Merrick famously pulled the plug in New York after only four previews on a 1966 musical version that starred Mary Tyler Moore, announcing that he was sparing the public an incredibly dull evening in the theater. Samuel Adamson wrote a dramatic adaptation headlined by Anna Friel that debuted in London in 2009 to mixed reviews. And now the same director, Sean Mathias, has taken a blundering stab at turning it into a Broadway play, this time with a page-bound script by Richard Greenberg and a strained Emilia Clarke in the central role.
It’s a daunting and thankless task to list all the things that went wrong in this lethargic retelling, so let’s start with the good. The ginger tom playing protagonist Holly Golightly’s cat, the “poor slob without a name,” is a scene-stealing treasure in his few minutes of stage time. Pretty much everything else is harder to love.
Capote’s 1958 novella is one of the true classic New York stories and Holly is among the most beguiling creations in 20th century American literature, an amoral socialite gold digger who charms and seduces everyone around her even as she’s blithely taking advantage of them. What’s more, she was immortalized in an enchanting screen performance by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 Blake Edwards movie. Purists may carp about it softening the harder edges of Capote’s story, but the film is an evergreen whose luster remains undiminished. When many of us imagined living in Manhattan, we pictured ourselves carousing at parties like the wild shindig in Holly’s apartment.
So it’s a tall order to capture, let alone compete with, that magic in a new version. Even so, it’s remarkable how thoroughly the evocativeness and poignancy of both Capote’s brilliantly succinct prose and Edwards’ delectable film have been expunged from this bloated rehash.
Part of that is due to the miscasting of Clarke, best known as the platinum-haired Khaleesi uber-babe in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Reverting to brunette, she looks slinky and soignée in Colleen Atwood’s elegant period gowns, even if the details of the Oscar-winning designer’s costumes tend to get lost onstage in her first Broadway assignment. But Clarke doesn’t demonstrate the maturity to convey Holly’s unique dichotomy of breezy insouciance and jaded calculation. It takes skill and subtlety for a British actor to play an American hillbilly who wears her acquired sophistication like a satin sheath, and Clarke’s delivery mostly comes off as effortful over-enunciation. Her Hollywood mentor O.J. (Lee Wilkof) describes Holly as “a phony,” but clarifies, “she’s a real phony.” Those distinguishing layers are lost here. The most crucial missing component from Clarke’s performance is vulnerability. There’s neither softness nor fragility in her grating Holly, even when she’s subjected to the hardest knocks.
As impossible as it is to separate the movie imprint from our experience of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Greenberg’s adaptation at least deserves credit for going back to the source material. He frames the action in 1957 and has it unfold like a Tennessee Williams memory play, as the narrator’s reminiscences from 1943-44.
That narrator and Capote stand-in is Holly’s unnamed upstairs neighbor, whom she insists on calling Fred (Cory Michael Smith), after her beloved brother back West. Greenberg is on the right track by amplifying the subtext of the aspiring fiction writer’s homosexuality, underlining his kinship with Holly. Both of them are transplants intent on reinventing themselves in New York, and both have no qualms about capitalizing on their youth and beauty. Smith impressed last season in back-to-back Off Broadway roles in Cock and The Whale. But he lacks the hungry ambition of the role as written here, coming across merely as a besotted puppy. He’s also burdened by the playwright’s cut-and-paste process of turning great chunks of Capote’s text into Fred’s flowery narration. Too much about this production is literary and literal.
Far more than the casting or writing, however, the insurmountable problem is Mathias’ cloddish direction. One scene bumps into the next with painfully awkward transitions, particularly when narration overlaps with recapitulated action in the many failed attempts at cinematic crosscutting. Even the normally reliable set designer Derek McLane’s work lacks fluidity, with cumbersome panels rolling on and off, splashed with Wendall K. Harrington’s uninteresting projections. A horseriding interlude in Central Park is one of the more amateurish feats of staging seen on Broadway of late.
There are also wild inconsistencies in the acting styles. In the relatively small role of a bartender whose quiet obsession with Holly has endured for more than a decade since he last saw her, George Wendt brings a nice melancholy weariness, and Murphy Guyer is touchingly direct and honest as Doc, the folksy Texan who comes to New York to reclaim Holly, a wild creature he mistakenly believed he had tamed. In an ideal production, the inextinguishable affection these men feel for Holly would be shared by the entire audience.
Too many other characterizations are broad cartoons – Holly’s disapproving opera diva neighbor (Suzanne Bertish); her idiotic millionaire man-child suitor (Tony Torn); the competitive friend who steals that “prize” (Kate Cullen Roberts); the reporter (Danny Binstock) covering her arrest when Holly’s supposedly unwitting involvement in a drug ring is exposed. Mathias flails about, struggling to find a workable balance of comedy and romance with the grit for which Greenberg aims in his script.
Depicting the fashion photographer Yunioshi, the playwright and director make a point of distancing themselves from Mickey Rooney’s goofy comic stereotype in the movie, casting James Yaegashi as a smooth and handsome, culturally assimilated variation. But his self-loathing about being “a pimp for the American economy” – shooting Vogue covers while his Japanese cousins are held in filthy internment pens in wartime California – comes out of nowhere and adds nothing.
Ultimately, this translation is an inert substitute for both the written and filmed versions, its central characters distant and lacking in warmth. For all her elusiveness, Holly’s sorrow is that she learns who she is, where she belongs and what matters to her only when those certainties are taken away. Those realizations are stated here but never shown persuasively enough to make us care.
Venue: Cort Theatre, New York
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Cory Michael Smith, George Wendt, Suzanne Bertish, Danny Binstock, Pedro Carmo, Elisabeth Anthony Gray, Murphy Guyer, Eddie Korbich, Paolo Montalban, Kate Cullen Roberts, John Rothman, Tony Torn, Lee Wilkof, James Yaegashi
Director: Sean Mathias
Playwright: Richard Greenberg, based on the novella by Truman Capote
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music & sound designer: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Projection designer: Wendall K. Harrington
Presented by Colin Ingram & Donovan Mannato, Geoffrey Thomas, Dominic Ianno, Robert L. Hutt, May Chu, Ilene Starger
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