April 15 update: Breakfast At Tiffany’s will close at the Cort Theater on Sunday, April 21, having played 17 preview and 38 regular performances.
When Holly Golightly sits on the fire escape strumming a guitar and singing, those watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at the Cort Theater may temporarily feel in familiar territory, even though this Holly is not Audrey Hepburn and she isn’t singing “Moon River.” But for maximum appreciation of this stylish and intriguing stage version, written by Richard Greenberg and starring Emilia Clarke and Cory Michael Smith, it helps to forget the brightly romantic 1961 film. This of course is not possible, which is one reason why this “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is ultimately unsatisfying.
The new play by Greenberg (“Take Me Out,” “Three Days of Rain”), as directed by Sean Mathias (“The Elephant Man”), is of a darker hue than the movie, closer to a feeling of film noir,set mostly in 1943, with jazzy incidental music, men wearing fedoras, a mystery at its core, and much of the action surrounded by shadows. (Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting comes close to being a character in the play.) The rain here isn’t lovely; it’s foreboding.
Greenberg hews far closer than the film did to the 1958 novella by Truman Capote. As in the book, there is a narrator, played by Cory Michael Smith, whom New York audiences have come to know because of his roles as the British bisexual lover in “Cock” and Mormon missionary in “The Whale,” and who here is burdened with a Louisiana accent. Holly calls him Fred because he reminds her of his brother, but we never learn his actual name.
We first see him in 1957, when Joe the bartender (George Wendt) calls him to his bar during a rainstorm to tell him of a strange sighting – Holly’s face has appeared on a wood carving in Africa. Maybe this is where she has gone all these years? Fred then walks us back to 1943, takes off his camel-hair coat, puts on an old ratty one from his youth, and simultaneously tells us and acts out the story of his meeting, getting to know, and becoming infatuated with his outrageous next-door neighbor.
But Greenberg makes explicit what is only between-the-lines in Capote’s story – that Fred is gay. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” becomes a story about a gay man who falls in love with a woman – and, by extension, it is about the nature of impossible love.
Smith and Clarke sound like a team of adventurers, and in a way they are. Both play newcomers to New York, who are young (both performers are 25; she is supposed to be 19, he 20), ambitious and self-invented. The performers are deserving of the term fresh-faced but already have a growing number of fans; each is Hollywood-level appealing; both surely have stellar careers ahead of them. Yet, despite what may appear in the still photographs below, they don’t have classic Hollywood chemistry. That is more or less the point: Their characters are meant to be mismatched. He aims for a high-tone literary career and comes off as childish; she wants to snag a rich old man who will take care of her, and affects an arch sophistication, with an English accent that is supposed to be put on (Conveniently, the actress actually is from England.) And, you know, he’s gay.
“I’m not just one thing,” he protests to her. “I contain multitudes.”
“Well I am one thing,” she replies, “and young men of limited means and unlimited confusion have no part in it.”
(For the record, yes, as you may have heard, they have a nude scene together in a bathtub — awkward, chaste and brief.)
Click on any photograph to see them enlarged in a slide show
There are other mismatches in this production as well, surely not as intentional. Set designer Derek McLane and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington are both exemplary theater artists at the top of their professions, and there are some pleasing atmospherics in a production that is steeped in old-time New York, with vintage photographs from the 1940s and scenes played in pools of light on a darkened stage that abstractly suggests Manhattan. But there are moments when it appears as if the two designers didn’t even speak to one another. Some of the projections are meant to fill out a crowded room with even more of a crowd, but they clash with the dark, busy backdrops, and are barely visible. They seem extraneous, pointless.
Can one say the same thing about the enterprise as a whole? This is at least the third time that somebody has tried to put “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” on the stage. The first, in 1966, a musical that starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain with a book written by Edward Albee, has gone down as one of the worse flops in Broadway history. Producer David Merrick shut it down before it opened, after just four preview performances, “rather,” he said, “than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.” The second attempt was in 2009 on the West End. The actress who played Holly Golightly, Anna Friel, was praised, but British critics were otherwise largely unimpressed, some wondering whether there was any point in a stage adaptation at all (“What you lose is the idiosyncratic beauty of Capote’s prose.”) The producer of the UK version, Colin Ingram, then decided to go after the American market, and hired Richard Greenberg to create a U.S. version from scratch.
It would be unfair to assume that all efforts to capitalize on the widespread appeal of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” are doomed, but any must overcome a challenge. Yes, “Breakfast” is what marketers call a brand. A band named “Deep Blue Something” tapped our collective fondness for the movie with their only hit, a 1995 song entitled “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” which is about a man trying to stop his lady from breaking up with him; she says they have nothing in common. The chorus goes:
And I said what about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
She said, “I think I remember the film,
And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it.”
And I said, “Well, that’s the one thing we’ve got.”
But it is specifically our fond memory of Audrey Hepburn in the movie that has carved out this place in the popular culture.
Clarke is no Audrey Hepburn; she doesn’t have Hepburn’s electricity (who does?). In her debut on Broadway (this is in fact her first time on any professional stage), Clarke (who plays Daenerys Targaryen in the HBO series “Game of Thrones”) exudes charm, she wears costume designer Colleen Atwood’s elegant wardrobe well, she is great to look at — but she is not so interesting to watch. This is not entirely her fault. More than half a century later, decades into the reign of Madonna and the ubiquity of amoral “reality stars,” is anything Holly does really so riveting or outrageous anymore?
In the play (as in the original novella) Holly tells Fred that she has only had sex with 11 men “not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, well, that just doesn’t count.” This is a touching moment in Capote’s story, a moment when we realize not just the what of Holly’s transformation, but the why. But in the play, it passes too quickly and mostly registers as: Oh,then she isn’t really a high-class hooker.
There are a dozen other cast members (plus a cat), most of whom are used as little more than extras for atmosphere. James Yaegashi plays the Japanese upstairs neighbor like a human being, rather than the racist comic relief in which the character was portrayed by Mickey Rooney in the movie (one of the several ways the movie does not deserve its reputation.) George Wendt’s role as a bartender is tiny but memorable. Lee Wilkof is another stand-out as OJ Berman, the gruff Hollywood agent. All three characters are infatuated with Holly Golightly , as is just about everybody on stage — and far fewer in the audience. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a pleasant enough outing at the theater that is more effective as a study in infatuation than an exercise in it.
Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s
at the Cort Theater
Stage adaptation by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Sean Mathias, scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Colleen Atwood, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, projection design by Wendall K. Harrington.
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Cory Michael Smith,George Wendt, Suzanne Bertish, Danny Binstock, Pedro Carmo, Elisabeth Anthony Gray, Murphy Guyer, Eddie Korbich, Paolo Montalban, Kate Cullen Roberts, John Rothman, Tony Torn, Lee Wilkof, James Yaegashi
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes including one intermission
Ticket prices: $37.00 – $132.00. Rush tickets on the day of the performance: $32