In 1977 Truman Capote was attempting to give a speech at Towson State University when, due to the effects of alcohol or drugs or both, he had to be escorted from the stage. But now he's back in glory at the Mechanic Theatre in Jay Presson Allen's "Tru," which opened last night.
Well, not exactly. Sticklers for detail might point out that Capote died in 1984 and is being portrayed in this one-man show by Robert Morse.
But the man on stage seems much closer to the author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "In Cold Blood" than to the actor best known for "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
It's not just the makeup, extraordinary though that is. Nor is it the characteristic Capote apparel: the wide-brimmed hat, round horn-rimmed glasses and floppy cardigan. Mr. Morse's portrayal goes deeper than even the famous Capote voice, which he's got down pat -- part lisp, part drawl, part rasp, with an occasional syllable wafting into the stratosphere.
The depth of Mr. Morse's performance, directed by the playwright, can be measured in his eyes, which genuinely seem to be Capote's. They dart and sparkle with a cunning glee that would be the envy of Peck's Bad Boy. When he delivers a bon mot -- Mrs. Allen has said 75 percent of the script is Capote's own words -- Mr. Morse savors the moment with a jaunty little dance step, a victorious thumbs up, and, most of all, a gleam in his eyes.
Actually, in most of the play, Capote is bolstering his nerve. It's the week before Christmas 1975, shortly after Esquire published the first excerpts of "Answered Prayers," Capote's dissection of high society, which he thought would be his masterwork. For two decades he played court jester to American royalty. But when, like one of Shakespeare's fools, he dared to reveal the truth, society shunned him.
Unlike many one-man shows, which tend to be anthologies of reminiscences structured in flashbacks, each act of "Tru" takes place in real time. Instead of looking back from the vantage point of old age, Capote is at a pivotal point in his life. The effect is poignant. He thinks his society ladies will forgive him; we know they never did.
As the play progresses, Capote becomes increasingly depressed, but he rallies his pride. There's palpable tension between him and the liquor bottle when he's fighting the temptation to take a drink, but he doesn't give in. It's two years before he was led off the stage at Towson State. Capote may be battling a few inner demons here, but there's no sense of self-pity in Mr. Morse's touching characterization; the bittersweet edge comes from our awareness of the future.
In addition to Kevin Haney's makeup design and Sarah Edwards' costumes, the Capote spirit is evoked by David Mitchell's rendition of his United Nations Plaza apartment. In the script, Capote describes himself as "the decorator's despair," and the set is a melange of plaster cat figurines, Victoriana and a breathtaking view of the East River. It's as outre as Capote's personality.
When Mr. Morse comes out for the final curtain call, he has pulled off his balding gray wig to reveal his own boyish thatch of hair. Taking a bow, he tears off a false jowl and removes the cap concealing the gap between his front teeth. Only then does Truman Capote fully give way to the actor we recognize as Robert Morse. To borrow a phrase that crops up repeatedly in the first act, "Tru" is a true tribute to an "absent friend."
"Tru" is at the Mechanic Theatre through Oct. 28. Call 625-1400.