At the age of eight, after the bite from a cottonmouth snake failed to scare him, Truman Capote visited a legendary witch in his hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Armed with Grandma's ornamental necklace - stolen to bribe his fondest wish out of the crone - he demanded to become a tap dancer in Hollywood. But when pressed further, he broke down, confessing his true desire and baring the root of his pain: Truman longed to be a girl. The witch answered with derisive laughter, attacking the child's high-pitched voice and pretty face, forever branding him "a two-headed calf."
A few years later, Truman firmly picked up his ink sword and wrote a fictional portrait of the neighborhood. The story, called "Mrs. Busybody," was bought by the Mobile Register and slated for three installments, but when the citizens of Monroeville saw their thinly disguised lives exposed in print, venom spread through the town, and the second and third parts were scrapped in favor of less controversial fare.
The late Truman Capote wrote, "Our end is consequent on our beginning," and his life became a prime example. In Jay Presson Allen's impressive one-man-exhibition, Tru, now playing at the Parker Playhouse, the audience meets the novelist, nonfiction innovator, intellectual pet of the wealthy, and talk-show guest/bitch at the onset of his decline, when that honest, scathing wit inadvertently induced his final exile.
The play examines two days before Christmas, 1975. Truman, wrapping and rewrapping a growing corpulence in soft shirt and roomy sweater, paces the floors of his United Nations Plaza apartment, searching for reasons to be cheerful. He reminisces about his extraordinary life ("I knew everybody"), rants about friends who dare to send him a poinsettia ("the Bob Goulet of botany"), and reveals his demons ("I'm an alcoholic - it's a chemical addiction"). Most of all, he's terrified by his current loneliness, and absent friends. Just a month before, Esquire published "La Cote Basque, 1965," a chapter from Capote's long-awaited book, Answered Prayers. The mercurial author of Other Voices, Other Rooms and In Cold Blood views the new work as his masterpiece, the culmination of a grand career.
This optimistic vision is not shared, however, by his subjects - the super-rich clique with whom he cavorted upon reaching celebrity status. It's like "Mrs. Busybody" all over again: By acutely portraying the "ethical squalor" of Gloria Vanderbilt, Babe Paley, and other denizens of the social register, he stands accused of treachery and betrayal, shunned even by his agent, jet-set hot-shot Irving "Swifty" Lazar.
As Tru (his favored nickname) frantically sends telegrams asking for forgiveness, nervously prances around the room to Louis Armstrong and Yuletide muzak, he makes every attempt to forgive himself. After all, he justifies, people who cozy up to a writer do so at their own risk. Besides, he paid attention to all those privileged, bored women, even liked them. But his own frequent thumbs-up salute to his wicked ways, punctuated by a quick flicker of the viper's tongue and naughty nose-wrinkle, ultimately eases no pains. The ghosts of Christmas past - a childhood of rejection, his mother's suicide - frame this icy Christmas present, leaving the man known as "the tiny terror" vastly and irrevocably alone.
Even while Capote indulges his self-pity, which predictably worsens on Christmas Eve, he's wise enough to retain the trademark wit and haughty humor that made him such a valuable party guest. And the combination makes for great drama, as he brings the audience closer into his tormented, marvelous mind.
Still, a one-man show presents thorny problems to most writers, directors, and actors. How does one sustain dramatic action when there's no other character to provide conflict? Tru handles the challenge magnificently, by virtue of vivid writing (75 percent of the words are Capote's own), and inventive organization of the material by Jay Presson Allen, whose own literary career includes the stage adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a string of film hits, including Cabaret. Allen also directed this piece with an able hand, but not without the alchemical help of actor Robert Morse.
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As Capote, Morse culminates his own career - which includes a Tony for the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - by melding so completely with the character that "acting" proves an inadequate term. He's partly transformed by make-up wizard Kevin Haney, who recently sculptured stars into cartoon caricatures for Dick Tracy. But elaborate make-up and belly-stuffing carries an actor only so far, and Morse bravely reaches for Capote's soul. Of course, he won another Tony for this work; stage performances rarely get any better.
Set designer David Mitchell has faithfully recreated Capote's own Manhattan apartment, and it's a delight to visit. Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz enhance both mood and moment with ingenious lighting, and Sarah Edwards's simple costumes add to the characterization. In other words, no one here made a false move. Early in the evening, Capote brags that he's "very ept." He would be thrilled to witness his image served so well, by artists as uniquely gifted as their subject.
Written and directed by Jay Presson Allen, from the words and works of Truman Capote; with Robert Morse. At the Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Ft. Lauderdale, through January 5. Performances Tuesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:00 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $31.50 - $35.00. Call 358-5885 for more information; (764-2700 in Broward).