FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, if you spent an evening being entertained by Truman Capote you would have probably been one of the richest people in the world. Now, you just need the price of a ticket to the Mechanic Theatre.
"Tru," the remarkable one-man play by Jay Presson Allen based on the words of Capote, will run through October 28 at the Mechanic. It is two hours spent on the edge, balancing precariously between comedy and tragedy, between laughter and tears, between the raucousness of exuberant performance and the quiet whimpers of inner torment.
Robert Morse, who has already collected about every award given out in the New York theater world for this role, does not so much play the part of Capote as transform himself into it. It's not an impersonation, it's an assumption.
Indeed, so total is the transformation that you are unaware of it. You don't find yourself admiring Morse's craft, but simply enjoying this time spent with Capote.
Only for brief moments do you get a glimpse of that bright-eyed, gap-toothed performer who seemed destined to be the dominant stage star of his generation 25 years ago, taking all those New York awards for the first time in the aptly abbreviated "How to Succeed . . . "
Certainly, the extensive makeup and body padding are necessary to the illusion, and Morse's work on Capote's signature voice and mannerisms is nearly impeccable, but something else is going on. When Capote talks of living life in constant dread, and quickly dances away from that edge with laughter, Morse communicates the feeling on a level that shows a deep understanding.
"Tru" is set in the days before Christmas in 1975. A chapter of Capote's novel, "Answered Prayers," has just been published in Esquire. It was an easy-to-decipher unmasking of the jet set society that had been Capote's playground for a couple of decades. Suddenly, he was persona non grata among the people he considered his closest friends.
To these rich-and-famous types -- in "Tru," Capote says he only hung around with people who could come up with $50 million in cash -- when a writer rips the soul from his family and his hometown and puts it on display for the world to read, that's being honest, that's writing about what you know. But when he writes about their society with identical honesty, why then he just must be a broken-down homosexual hack who has drunk so much that he's run out of ideas.
Though there is no plot to "Tru," no development of character or story, an atmosphere of tension keeps it from being a didactic recital of Capote's wit and wisdom. At this moment in his life, Capote, 51, who has consciously climbed the ladder from his humble roots to the pinnacle of society, does not know what is going to happen next.
And so he paces about his New York apartment, with its magnificent view of the United Nations and Manhattan beyond, and considers the road that has brought him to this point and the possible directions it might take in the future. Capote is contemplating the prospect of being alone, as alone as he felt as a little boy when his mother drove off down that road in Alabama, leaving him at the home of her spinster sisters.
Any who remember Capote's look-at-me flamboyance -- perhaps his cynical lispings as a man-child sitting on the couch next to Johnny Carson, not caring if you were laughing with him or at him -- would have to wonder if he would continue to exist without an audience. That you are watching Capote face the prospect of such a life while you are a member of an audience just adds a touch of surreality.
A feeling of redemption surrounds "Tru." It will be generations before Capote's ultimate reputation in American literature is determined, but this play restores his position as an intriguing, insightful individual who by the force of his personality and persistence achieved a unique place on the social stage and tried to use that position to reach loftier goals.
But more than what it does for the reputation of Capote, it does for the career of Morse, who has spent most of the last two decades on the dim edge of the spotlight that once shone on him so brightly. "Tru" seems the ideal mating of actor and role as Morse must know all too well the dread that Capote contemplated in the Christmas season of 1975 when it appeared he would lose his audience.
So good is Morse's work that the production's slight flaws -- a loose bit on his facial mask, overly-harsh lighting that caused the latex to shine, a prop oil portrait that was clearly a paper poster -- were magnified in comparison.
The only real problem is that, as must have been the case with most evenings spent in Capote's presence, it ends all too soon.
*** A one-man play based on the writings of Truman Capote, set in December, 1975 as he faced rejection by his socialite friends.
CAST: Robert Morse
DIRECTOR: Jay Presson Allen
RUNNING TIME: Two hours