Breakfast at Tiffany's
Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 20, 2013
Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's Stage adaptation by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Sean Mathias. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Colleen Atwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Original music & sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Makeup design by J. Roy Helland. Cast: Emilia Clarke, Cory Michael Smith, Suzanne Bertish, Banny Binstock, Pedro Carmo, Elisabeth Anthony Gray, Murphy Guyer, Eddie Korbich, Paolo Montalban, Kate Cullen Roberts, John ROthman, Tony Torn, Lee Wilkof, James Yaegashi, and George Wendt.
Oh, there's not exactly anything bad about Greenberg's take or director Sean Mathias's production of it, but there's certainly nothing exciting about either. From the Capote-drenched dialogue to the style-conscious staging to the design to the performances, they're thoroughly efficient from start to finish. But for any story in which almost nothing happens, thus requiring mood and atmosphere to be the driving principles, pure efficiency is a blood enemy rather than a blood brother.
For their 1961 film treatment, screenwriter George Axelrod and director Blake Edwards did about the only thing they could to solidify a liquidy tale: They structured everything around their female lead. By focusing intently on the independent-minded Holly Golightly and the immensely lovable actress playing her (Audrey Hepburn), rather than the male author who conjures her up on the page and speaks copiously to the reader, Axelrod and Edwards transformed the duo's almost-romance into a swirling evocation of the era in which women were truly beginning to come into their own — and needed an avatar to signal that they could do or be anything.
Whether this spin was successful remains in the eye of the beholder — I admire the movie far more for its feel than its feelings — but it was a bold attempt to address the novella's elemental problem of Holly being a type of figment of the author's imagination by transforming her world into her dream. It's a vast departure, yes, and one that also opened the door to a Capote-denying Hollywood friendliness (and, gasp, a happy ending), but it was at least an acknowledgment of the inherent difficulties in forcing a literary product dependent on literary devices work into a decidedly non-literary form.
Greenberg, by contrast, has hewed much more closely to the original in terms of both word and construction. This means the central figure is not Holly, but rather the man who’s so fascinated with her. Unnamed, but referred to by her as "Fred," he summons his own vision and recollections of New York at a crossroads in both the mid 1940s (when he knew Holly) and the late 1950s (the ostensible present), and identifies Holly as a captivating creature who’s just to special to be recognized by — let alone held by — society. And he informs us of this constantly, in direct addresses that constitute what seems like half of every word he utters.
This approach may be more faithful to the source, but it's also considerably more numbing. There’s nothing invigorating, let alone particularly dramatic, in seeing Fred (Cory Michael Smith) observe Holly (Emilia Clarke) from an arm’s-length remove, even when he’s closest to her, and then expound to us at great length about the appeal and magic she exudes but that we never witness first-hand. Both become more remote, and because the entire show depends on their chemistry and their synergy, this doesn't draw you close to it, either.
So the numerous scenes intended to demonstrate their coming together — at myriad parties, on terraces, in intimate but pointedly sexless exchanges in bedrooms — we're aware of the technical outlines of a relationship, but not the heat, even of the one-sided variety, of one. Greenberg ensures we learn all there is to know about both Fred and Holly, but his writing is so long on words and short on action that we're more assaulted with speeches than we are enlightened by them. We spend no shortage of time with Fred and Holly, but never get to know or care about either.
This casual approach to humanity extends to the subsidiary characters as well, making them seem like no better than grotesque playthings in a toy box. Most emblematic is Suzanne Bertish, who plays Fred and Holly’s landlady Madame Spanella as though she’s Miss Hannigan in Annie, and never lets any moment’s sincerity go unmolested. Lee Wilkof’s Hollywood heavyweight O.J. Berman, Kate Cullen Roberts’s too-glittery Southern rival Mag Wildwood, and Tony Torn’s tabloid-sensation Rusty Trawler are all, at best, marginally more realistic. Only George Wendt’s sympathetic bartender and James Yaegashi's Japanese neighbor are even vaguely recognizable people.
Sadly, that goes for Fred and Holly, too. Smith is generally likable but stilted, and can't smooth over the jagged edges of Greenberg's oppressive monologues or narration; most of the time, he may as well be reciting a Swahili translation of the Social Register. Clarke, well known from the TV series Game of Thrones, is conventionally beautiful, but gives dullish line readings that sound like they're trying and failing to mimic Hepburn's glimmer and, worse yet, projects neither the mystery nor erotic allure that might let us understand what would attract Fred or anyone else.
All the glitter here has gone to Mathias's staging, which injects a careful but appealing fluidity the text routinely lacks. Derek McLane's noir-dreamlike sets, Colleen Atwood's lush costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski's lights further help outline the borders of an existence in need of Holly's inspiring fire. Unfortunately, Greenberg hasn't provided any of that in its script, resulting in something that Capote devotees might appreciate but most theatregoers in the David Merrick mold probably will not.