Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Chris Faith plays Capote in Tru, Jay Presson Allen's play which had a successful Broadway run two decades ago starring Robert Morse. It's running with The Threshing Floor, a world premiere about Baldwin written and performed by James William Ijames. Fittingly, the two plays are quite different experiences: Tru is a light, breezy entertainment that celebrates Capote as a personality more than as a writer, while The Threshing Floor is a more thoughtful examination of Baldwin and his struggle with his place in society. Tru is enjoyable, but it's The Threshing Floor that's the more intriguing and fulfilling play.
Tru takes place at Christmastime in 1975, and finds Capote is at a low point in his career. He takes the opportunity to address the audience about his life as he lounges around his Manhattan apartment (both shows share the same living room set). Under Tony Braithwaite's direction, Faith does a good job of recreating the unique voice and attitude so memorable from Capote's many television appearances. Faith is clearly having a lot of fun as he interacts with audience members (asking questions and making deep eye contact), all the while dropping quips like "It's a scientific fact that for every year you live in California, you lose two points of your IQ" and "I used to be famous for writing booksnow I'm famous for being famous." That last remark turns out to be a telling one. Tru ends up depicting Capote as a sad and pathetic figure trading on his former glories and desperately trying to ingratiate himself with stars like Ava Gardner. When Faith read an excerpt from Capote's "A Christmas Memory" on opening night, some of the audience members gasped; it seemed astonishing that such beautiful prose could come from the walking cartoon depicted onstage.
The Threshing Floor aims for a more nuanced portrait of its subject, and succeeds. Like Tru, The Threshing Floor is filled with anecdotes, but instead of focusing on one period, it tells a more linear story about Baldwin. Covering everything from his childhood in Harlem in the 1920s to his career as a teenaged preacher to his status in the 1960s as both a pariah and a "mouthpiece for the black intelligentsia," the play gives a swift (70 minutes) and satisfying overview of Baldwin's life. At times Ijames' objectivity seems suspect; the framework of the play is an interview by a fictional, fawning graduate student who tells Baldwin "You're my idol," and it often seems like he's a stand-in for the playwright. But after seeing Capote's life diminished by his play, it's a relief to see a play that honors Baldwin's literary achievements above everything else.
Ijames the performer doesn't succeed quite as well as Ijames the playwright. His portrayal of Baldwin is subtle and insinuating, but he also plays over a dozen other characters, and his voice and movements don't always vary enough to delineate them well. (There were two moments when I thought Baldwin was speaking, until the character addressed Baldwin by saying "Hey, Jimmy.") Director Brandon McShaffrey sometimes relies on changes in lighting and music to make changes in scene and character more comprehensible. (Matthew Miller's lighting in The Threshing Floor is excellent; oddly, his lighting in Tru seems haphazard, with lights dimming and brightening for no apparent reason.)
You'll leave both shows with a lot of admiration for their gifted stars, but these plays leave very different tastes. Tru is pleasant, but it's a somewhat shallow work that emphasizes Capote the social gadfly more than Capote the talented, insightful writer. The Threshing Floor has more depth, depicting James Baldwin as a man of great integrity, unafraid to show his true nature. It marks an exciting playwriting debut.
Tru and The Threshing Floor are running in repertory through January 31, 2010, at the Adrienne Theatre's Second Stage, 2030 Sansom Street. Ticket prices range from $15 to $20 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-923-8909, online at www.MauckingbirdTheatreCo.org or in person at the box office.