Breakfast at Tiffany's

nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 21, 2013

Adaptation of a well-known work can be a dangerous business, especially when your source material, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is already more famous for its previous, very loose adaptation (Blake Edwards’s 1961 film version) than the original, the 1958 novella by Truman Capote. The new stage adaptation by Richard Greenberg, as billed (“Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), hews much closer in both plot details and elegiac tone to the novella than it does to the much lighter and more farcical film. But that allegiance seems to trap the piece in a strange limbo where it’s consciously trying to retain the elegance, the tone, and the pathos of Capote, but not succeeding, really, in being either entirely faithful to Capote’s wistful novella or realized for the stage with specifically theatrical imagination.

The story is simple: an aspiring writer (called, though not actually named, Fred), alone and struggling in a tiny apartment in the big city, meets and becomes entranced with his neighbor, Holly Golightly, a glamorous mystery woman who seems part actress, part society girl, part adventuress, and turns out to be something more complicated than all of that. Fred’s time as Holly’s confidant and companion is brief but transformative, and when Holly skips out of town and out of his life, he—and their friend, bartender Joe Bell—never really forget her.

Using a retrospective narrator, looking back on events that happened more than a decade ago (the piece opens in 1957 but the main action is in 1943-44) mirrors the structure of the source material, but also seems to create a layer of distance between audience and characters; we have to view the Joe and Holly and Fred of the main story through the lens of the older, wiser Fred the narrator. In a play that’s already struggling to break from the page and give the characters vitality, the frame device feels even more intrusive than it otherwise might.

And all too often, the play feels far too wed to the page, much of the time in the most literal of ways, quoting big swaths of direct Capote in both narration or dialogue. But when Greenberg does choose to depart from the source, it’s frequently a misstep, too, either heavy-handedly filling in a scene Capote merely sketched, making overt what was the most gossamer of subtext, or adding a concrete political consciousness that feels obtrusive in Capote’s more oblique characters.

The choices of which scenes to tell via the narrator and which to actually stage often feel arbitrary. In some cases, throwaway scenes involving minor characters are staged, like Fred’s boss firing him from a magazine job that’s barely mentioned before or since; in others, the narrator gives us information we don’t need, because we can read it in the physical environment or we’re about to see it in a scene. Much of the dialogue, too, is lifted straight from Capote, to the point where it seems like Greenberg has chosen certain scenes to dramatize based on the presence of suitable dialogue in them rather than because they suit the needs of the stage narrative.

In its most notable steps toward originality, Greenberg’s script dwells frequently and fairly frankly on Fred’s sexual identity, making it an ongoing preoccupation that’s intimately linked to Fred’s career advancement. One minor character, a prominent editor, propositions Fred at the ‘21’ Club; in another scene, Holly suggests that Fred pick up a sailor on shore leave on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Rather than feeling like a breath of honest fresh air, all of this feels self-consciously striving for relevance and political resonance (as do mentions of the one Japanese character’s interned family on the West Coast).

Most of the time, the whole thing feels brittle and forced, with a rote quality to it; motions are being gone through, but without a lot of conviction on the part of the creators. Most of the characters trade more in arch aphorism than actual conversation; it’s true to Capote, but it’s very difficult to act with any emotional force. The actors who find a way to inhabit the stylized prosiness of the dialogue seem to come off the best, like Murphy Guyer as Doc, a figure from Holly’s past, and Lee Wilkof as Holly’s agent. As Holly herself, Emilia Clarke has the very difficult task of reimagining an icon whose popular image has very little to do with the character beneath; she’s charming but doesn’t fully succeed in making Holly her own.

It’s a lavish and visually stylish production, full of projections and angular set pieces; the evocation of Holly’s apartment, furnished mostly with suitcases, is rather lovely (Derek McLane did the set), as is Peter Kaczorowski’s moody lighting. But the very elegance feels like a lot of pageantry draped over the lack of ideas at the core here.

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