Breakfast at Tiffany's at ART
by ANTHONY CHASE
American Repertory Theatre of WNY always aspires to something a little more. Moving from space to space, over the years they've tried to up the ante with regional premieres and artistic challenges. We’ve seen American Idiot on their stage, and The Heathers. We saw First Lady Suite and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Sometimes they revisit an old work as with their recent production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town; sometimes they dare us to try something new.
We’ve seen them in the basement of an old church, in a warehouse beside a bar, at a high school. Now settled into the theater loft at 545 Elmwood Avenue, former home of Ujima Theatre Company (and in the distant past, Studio Theatre), we can expect that the space will afford ART new vistas for their imaginations.
The theater space at 545 Elmwood is intimate, but it is also very wide, and has an upper level that can be either useful or an encumbrance, since the rear of the audience is only a few feet back from the apron of the stage. Yes, every seat is close – very.
The current production of Richard Greenberg’s stage adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s offers some challenges with its multiple locations and fluctuations between quick scenes and narration; between the World War II era past, and the post-war present. For these reasons, the multiple literal locations are rather a mistake, especially since the vast playing area could have lent itself to the material so much better as a blank slate onto which the narrator’s memories could be projected with fluidity. As staged, key scenes are relegated to awkward areas, and key spaces go empty for large expanses of time.
This is the story of a young writer of ambiguous sexual orientation who encounters a fascinating woman in 1940s Manhattan (much in the way that Christopher Isherwood encountered Sally Bowles in pre-war Berlin). We never learn his name. Her name is Holly Golightly and she decides to call him “Fred,” because of his resemblance to her brother, Fred. Fascinated by Holly, “Fred” will pursue her until her past catches up with her.
Matthew LaChiusa has directed this production with Candice Kogut as Holly Golightly and Ryan Kaminski as the writer known as “Fred.” That these actors bear no resemblance to Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, who inhabited the characters in the movie, is not an issue. (Truman Capote actually wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role, but she was under contract to Twentieth Century Fox).
The casting of Kogut, the resident artistic director at ART, has become a regular feature of their programming. Her appearance as Holly Golightly comes in that context and we begin to wonder, are roles being selected specifically for her, or is she being obliged to play roles whether or not she is well suited for them?
The issue is not quite critical in this case. Does Kogut project the ethereal and childlike fragility of Holly Golightly, a woman who, when dancing with men on the street is tossed about like a scarf? I suppose not, but steady, womanly, and arguably statuesque Kogut does create a consistent and clearly articulated person with the role; as does the more predictably cast Kaminski. The difficulty is, that the playwright has not given them a great deal of fuel to generate the chemistry between them. As the author of such gorgeous plays as Three Days of Rain, Eastern Standard, and Take Me Out, Greenberg is a formidable talent, but the ghost of Truman Capote blurs the focus here.
Greenberg’s play follows Capote’s novella more faithfully than the film did. In fact, the play is an homage to the book, with a few references to the film tossed in to satisfy its innumerable fans. While the movie was set in the 1960s, the play restores the 1940s setting. The romance between “Fred” and “Holly” was similarly manufactured for the film and not used here. In the novella, the two never have an affair.
We are reminded frequently and deliberately of the source material. Numerous immortal Capote phrases are marched out for our delectation. We will be told about the “mean reds,” and that anybody who get used to anything might as well be dead. We will be advised that certain shades of limelight can wreck a girl's complexion, never to love and wild thing, and that we owe a lot to anyone who gives us confidence. Those delightful phrases are from the novella and we are given a feast of them. We get reminders of the Blake Edwards film, as well, including Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” and an appearance by Holly’s Japanese neighbor that, even in silhouette, does not go far enough to atone for the racist error of casting Mickey Rooney in the movie. (Amos and Andy started on radio; need I say more?) But this play is really all about Truman Capote, and that presents a bit of a problem. This is not a novella; it is a play.
In addition to Kogut and Kaminski, the cast features the talents of Derrik Reynolds as Joe Bell and OJ Berman; Robert Insana as Doc Golightly; Heather Casseri as Mags Wildwood; Chris Wagner as Rusty Trawler; Dewel Perez as ‘José Ybarra-Jaegar’ and Elizabeth Oddy as roller skating opera diva Madame Spanella. They ably and energetically relate the story that Greenberg has transferred from page to stage. We are amused by Holly’s antics. We are sympathetic with Fred’s frustrations. But unlike the movie, we never quite fall in love with these people, and we certainly don’t shed any tears at the impossibility of their relationship.