If the cat is a potent symbol in the story of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," so too is it one in the new play version that has landed on Broadway.
A real cat appears in Holly Golightly's arms in Act 1 and seems, to put it mildly, dismayed. (In the last preview, it scratched the star on its way offstage.) The feline then reappears toward the end of the play to thoroughly undermine a key dramatic scene by waddling away nonchalantly. The cat is also there when the curtain falls, looking appropriately sleepy.
The cat – all three animals playing the part ludicrously get their own Playbill entries – is just one of the problems in this ill-conceived and poorly executed adaptation of a classic American tale that opened Wednesday at the Cort Theatre.
The many scenes stubbornly refuse to add up to much and it remains as flat as Golightly is supposed to be effervescent. Richard Greenberg's adaptation of Truman Capote's classic 1958 novella is extremely faithful – some chunks of dialogue have been lifted directly from the book – without adding much. Actually, director Sean Mathias has tacked on more complexity to scenes for reasons that are unclear and his transitions are often brusque.
It stars Emilia Clarke of HBO's "Game of Thrones" as the doomed eccentric party girl Golightly, a role Audrey Hepburn played to acclaim in the 1961 movie. People coming to see a sanitized Golightly, Hubert de Givenchy-inspired costumes and "Moon River" will be disappointed. This is set during World War II, not the 1960s of the film, and is much grittier, with references to homosexuality, drug use and prostitution out in the open.
Clarke gamely tries hard but tends to overact and sometimes seems to have picked the wrong Hepburn – Katharine, not Audrey – to model her accent. She says "darling" too much, appears nude in a completely unnecessary bathtub scene and plays guitar while singing in another, but that drags on so long it undercuts its poignancy. She is ultimately believable as a vulnerable woman hiding behind a sophisticated facade but is undone by a lackluster story and overly fancy direction.
Cory Michael Smith as Fred also tries hard, but he is shaky in parts and seems unwilling to reveal what exactly Fred hopes to desperately achieve with his friendship with Golightly. It is his responsibility to both narrate the story and be part of it, which leads to awkwardness when scenes are half-baked.
Part of the problem also is that minor Capote characters – like neighbor Madame Sapphia Spanella, a tiny sketch in an already short novel – have been given life, but there's not enough flesh on the bone. There are more than a dozen actors swirling around a show that needs to feel smaller.
Greenberg, who wrote the award-winning "Take Me Out," seems always to want to remind us that we're at the end of World War II, whether it's someone mentioning Mussolini – during a dance segment, no less – or having a ham-fisted reference to the evils of Japanese-American internment camps in order to have an Asian character (James Yaegashi, a bright spot) have more depth.
The story is also undone by odd choices onstage. Why is Fred handed an overcoat at various times by a silent butler? Why does Joe Bell (a completely miscast George Wendt from "Cheers" fame) recite dialogue in unison with another character to show a time shift only for the play to then immediately abandon this storytelling technique? And why does the tone sometimes dip into bad film noir, what with all that rain and thunder?
While Wendall K. Harrington's projections and Colleen Atwood's costumes are first-rate – romantic and stylish for Clarke and faithful to the era – Derek McLane's sets are unusually flimsy, with one unmoored door sweeping across the stage with as much frequency as a crazed Roomba. The last preview was marred slightly by the crash of broken cups as the bar set failed to follow stage directions. Like the cat.
Come to think of it, maybe the cat can be forgiven for bad behavior. It has, after all, had to sit through too much of this.
Five days before the show’s premiere, Sean Mathias sat in front of me at “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The British director had a pen in his hand and a notebook in his lap.
By rights, Mathias should’ve been drafting an apology letter for stirring up this half-baked rehash of Truman Capote’s singularly quirky book about Holly Golightly.
You know her — she’s the free-spirited, if rudderless, survivor at the heart of the 1958 novella. Holly was played indelibly by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film.
Broadway’s charm-challenged “Breakfast” isn’t the movie. No rom-com ending. No Holly pecking at pastry at dawn on Fifth Ave. No “Moon River,” but there’s a song on a fire escape. And that’s okay. Adaptations ought to find new ways to tell a tale.
Unfortunately, the play shakes loose no fresh insights, joys or jolts. It’s a lesser copy — like trading Tiffany’s for Jared. Why bother?
The script by Tony winner Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out”) sticks tracing-paper close to the novel, including its gritty 1943 New York setting. Hunks of dialogue are lifted verbatim. Scenes in 1957 bookend the play.
Between end points, party girl Holly lives off of rich men, while a wanna-be writer (a Capote avatar) becomes mesmerized by her peculiarities and pay-for-play sexcapades.
New York in the ’40s teemed with texture, but this production by Mathias, who directed a different short-lived 2009 London run of “Tiffany’s,” is weirdly one-dimensional. Derek McLane’s set pieces, Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Wendall K. Harrington’s projections leave you wanting.
Ditto Holly. “Game of Thrones” starlet Emilia Clarke makes her Broadway debut in the role with red lips and brown hair. Sure, she’s pretty, but spellbinding? Yawn — no. Like her dark ’do, which lacks the “strands of albino-blond and yellow” that Capote wrote about, Clarke’s matte performance lacks striking highlights. As directed, her voice grates, and emotional breakdown is unconvincing enough to spark “mean reds” — Hollyspeak for depression.
Cory Michael Smith, who recently impressed Off-Broadway in “The Whale,” fares marginally better as the infatuated gay neighbor Holly affectionately calls Fred. Tall and lanky unlike the gnomish Capote, Smith straps on a Southern accent and makes the most of his narrating duties.
There’s been ado about Fred and Holly’s bathtub scene, but the naked soak is so modest even a prude wouldn’t care. More remarkable is a fully clothed and ludicrous scene in which Holly and Fred ride horses in Central Park but, as staged, look like they’re plowing the bridle path. Or waterskiing.
In supporting roles, ex-“Cheers” barfly George Wendt sweet-talks as a barkeep who adores Holly; Suzanne Bertish plays a neighbor who rants about Holly’s whoring; and James Yaegashi acts up as a photographer infamously played onscreen by Mickey Rooney.
Vito Vincent, an orange feline, meowed on cue as Holly’s nameless pet. Smart cat — but it’s ultimately a fur-brained time-waster of a play.
Making your Broadway debut is nerve-wracking enough. Add a bit of cat-wrangling and a nude scene in a bathtub, and even seasoned pros would have the jitters.
Did we mention the role is Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a part made iconic by Audrey Hepburn? You might as well paint a neon target on your back.
Yet Emilia Clarke doesn’t seem affected in the least by the pressure. Not only does the young British actress look poised and confident at the Cort Theatre, but she pulls off a nifty feat: Her Holly is very different from the two other women looming over the performance.
One of them is Daenerys Targaryen, the fierce dragon-loving character Clarke plays on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” The other is even more daunting: It’s the ghost of Hepburn, whose performance in the 1961 Blake Edwards movie is held by many to be the definitive Golightly.
Those familiar only with that adaptation are in for a surprise here. Hollywood shied away from the darker side of Truman Capote’s novella, but Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out”) largely sticks to the source in his new stage version. It doesn’t necessarily translate to a good play — the second act limps to the finish line — but at least it’s closer to Capote’s spirit.
As in the book, the play mostly takes place in 1943 New York. We gradually discover the many sides of Miss Holiday “Holly” Golightly through the eyes of the neighbor she insists on calling Fred (Cory Michael Smith, late of “Cock” and “The Whale”).
A gawky aspiring writer, Fred is bewitched by Holly’s zany charm and devil-may-care attitude, and susses out her mysterious back story — when she sings on her fire escape, it’s not Henry Mancini’s romantic “Moon River” but a traditional ballad that ominously goes, “I am a traveling creature/Today I am a warning; to woman and to man.”
With Fred as narrator, we discover Holly’s friends, including Japanese photographer I.Y. Yunioshi (the sleek James Yaegashi), and witness her seemingly blithe habits. Those involve a lot of late-night partying — limply staged by director Sean Mathias, with distracting projections by Wendall K. Harrington — and early-morning drinking. The local watering hole, by the way, is run by George Wendt, who finally gets to sling drinks after years of downing them in “Cheers.”
Over the decades Holly has become the symbol of the free spirit, but here it’s clear she comes at a price: “Any gent with the slightest chic will give you 50 for the girl’s john,” she cheerfully tells Fred. “I always ask for cab fare, too; that’s another 50.”
And while she looks cool and sultry — think of a dark-haired Veronica Lake — she’s also prone to funks she calls “the mean reds.” One of the ways she restores her spirit is dropping by Tiffany’s, though we don’t see her do it in the show.
Clarke captures that survivor’s drive, as well as the aching vulnerability that bubbles up under the cool, sophisticated exterior. This Holly is still in her teens, after all — a kid who had to grow up fast, she’s putting on airs. “She’s such a goddamn liar,” says her Hollywood agent pal, OJ Berman (Lee Wilkof), “maybe she don’t know herself anymore.”
Smith’s Fred is a perfect sounding board for this elusive creature since he’s also inventing himself as a writer and as a man. (Greenberg added scenes with a publisher and an editor that make it clearer that Fred is gay, or at least weighing his options.)
It’s in the intimate, bittersweet scenes between those two that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is best. During those precious minutes, the show creates a life of its own.
Holly Golightly does not. Go lightly, that is. The new stage adaptation of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Truman Capote’s beloved portrait of a glamorous waif in 1940s New York, moves with a distinctly leaden step, as if it dreaded what might be waiting around every dark corner of the sinister city it portrays.
If your acquaintance with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is limited to Blake Edwards’s madcap 1961 movie version, which featured Audrey Hepburn at her most airily elfin and soignée, you may be startled by how somber the same story feels in this retelling, directed by Sean Mathias with a script by Richard Greenberg. And if you know the 1958 book, to which this production is much truer than the film in details of plot, you may still be surprised by the atmosphere of lugubriousness that hangs over the show.
We begin and end in a film-noir rain, in what feels like a blind alley of the soul. The saxophone that wails from time to time suggests long, lonely nights with a fast-evaporating bottle of scotch. And every one of the folks onstage, including the lovely young Emilia Clarke as Holly the good-time girl, give the impression that what they’re doing up there is hard labor.
Such a sense of effort runs contrary to the hallmark effect of Capote’s story, a slender and elegant work that wore its worldliness as if it were the thinnest crepe de Chine. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is one of the great gossamer illusions of American fiction. Every word in it is planted with care and exactitude, yet it seems to be woven from starlight.
Mr. Greenberg’s adaptation incorporates far more of Capote’s words than the Edwards film did, with shimmering passages of reminiscence that come directly from the book. Yet no matter how finespun the original ingredients, this particular soufflé seems doomed never to rise.
I think I can see what Mr. Matthias, who directed an earlier production of “Breakfast,” with a script by Samuel Adamson in London several years ago, is aiming for. He’s trying for a “Breakfast” that’s a cleareyed portrait of its time as well as a misty-eyed look at a child-woman of infinite caprice. So we have projected photographs of World War II-era New York (overseen by Wendall K. Harrington, per usual), its streets swarming with sailors and its celebrated upper-crust clubs awash in black ties and tight dresses.
Political undercurrents course through this landscape, and they are channeled right to the surface. References to Fascism rear ugly heads. (“Brown is the new black,” says one flighty nightclub patron.) So do evocations of furtive, shamed gay sex pursued in the shadows.
Our narrator — call him Fred (Cory Michael Smith) — engages in such pursuits. And yet he can’t help being drawn to the woman who lives in the brownstone apartment beneath him, that free-spirited gamine Sally Bowles — I mean, Holly Golightly. Excuse the slip, but it was unavoidable.
Critics have long noted similarities between Holly and the Sally Bowles of Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” But this production seems intent on transforming Capote’s enchanted kingdom of Manhattan into something closer to Isherwood’s Weimar Berlin, where foolish hedonists dance on the eve of destruction.
At the same time the volume has been raised on the hints of melancholy and pain that thrummed in Capote’s book like a piquant bass line. Speaking in an anguished Southern accent, Mr. Smith’s narrator seems to be looking back on his youth with the self-lacerating sting of Tennessee Williams’s Tom in “The Glass Menagerie.”
Mr. Smith (“The Whale,” “Cockfight Play”) is a fine and conscientious actor, and he’s to be commended for not surfing the music of Capote’s prose. But does he have to look quite so vexed and guilty? Fred’s relationship with his adored Holly reads mostly as fractious and uncomfortable.
As for Holly herself — aye, there’s the rub. A masterpiece of self-invention, Miss Golightly has been a role model for many a young woman (and, for that matter, gay man) who has come to New York to become the fabulous self that had to stay in hiding before. Clad in Stork Club-ready gowns by Colleen Atwood, the round-cheeked Ms. Clarke (best known as the dragon-breeding queen in the HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones”) looks positively edible, bringing to mind photographs of the teenage Gloria Vanderbilt on the town.
But there’s no hint of the feral hillbilly, the uncageable wild thing, that Holly once was. Instead Ms. Clarke comes across as an under-age debutante trying very, very hard to pass for a sophisticated grown-up. This makes Holly’s whimsy go soggy. And you just know that when she turns sad and sentimental at the end, it will happen with a quavering voice and a trembling lip.
Capote went on record to say that the pristine Audrey Hepburn was hardly his ideal Holly. (He would have preferred Marilyn Monroe.) But Hepburn sustained a feathery effervescence that, in its way, matched the illusory weightlessness of Capote’s prose. Her Holly was an untarnishable anti-materialist material girl, who wore a bath towel as if it were Givenchy and vice versa.
Ms. Clarke’s Holly is more obviously made of solid flesh, most of which is unnecessarily on display (along with that of Mr. Smith) in a bathtub scene in the second act. The spectacle of nakedness at that point eclipses what is meant to be a major turn of plot. And throughout, big moments of revelation seem to float by anticlimactically, as unremarked upon as the sliding panels of Derek McLane’s set.
The cast also includes a self-effacing George Wendt as a wise neighborhood bartender and an anything but self-effacing Suzanne Bertish as a floridly eccentric neighbor and a censorious New Yorker editor (for an interpolated scene that might have come from “Bright Lights, Big City”). Tony Torn, Pedro Carmo, Murphy Guyer and Lee Wilkof play some of the highly varied men in Holly’s life, while a miscast Kate Cullen Roberts portrays the stammering man-trap Mag Wildwood.
There are a couple of party scenes that throb with the unease of people working overtime to make you believe they’re having fun. The star of the first of these is a big orange tabby (selected from a much-publicized casting call) that, when I saw the show, leapt out of Holly’s arms and into the wings before the festivities really got started.
That cat exuded an enviable air of devil-may-care independence as it zipped off the stage. Maybe it should have played Holly. In any case I knew I wanted to go wherever that cat was going.
Girls were supposed to dream about becoming fairy-tale princesses. But everyone I ever knew, or at least anyone I liked, wanted to be Holly Golightly.
Oh, we heard the whispers, that the 1961 movie -- for us, the young-woman's-guide-to-sophistication -- was a sanitized version of Truman Capote's 1958 novella. We didn't think we needed to know that Holly -- the elegant Manhattan free spirit blessed with Audrey Hepburn's neck -- earned her exquisitely bohemian chic as a high-priced call girl. It mattered not to us that the struggling young writer she called Fred was at least bisexual and just maybe gay.
Eventually, of course, even youthful iconography can benefit from a splash of literary integrity. Alas, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" -- the third attempt to stage Capote's story and the first to actually open on Broadway -- is, dahling, as Holly might say, a bore.
British director Sean Mathias, who staged an earlier version by a different playwright in London four years ago, clearly believes he can do what even Edward Albee, Mary Tyler Moore and David Merrick couldn't do in a 1966 production that infamously closed after four previews.
This newest adaptation, which stars Emilia Clarke, is by the formidable and amusing playwright Richard Greenberg. No one can complain that he has not been faithful to the original. In fact, this is practically a line-by-line transcription of Capote's wartime story. It translates awkwardly to the stage as endless exposition, standard-issue New York projected skylines on screens and mushy mumbles by a largely charmless populace of should-be fascinating people.
As Holly, Clarke dares to be the not-Hepburn. This is essential. But Clarke, much admired as the Mother of Dragons in HBO's "Game of Thrones," lacks the presence that makes it impossible to notice anyone else in the room. Besides being small with a nice-girl beauty, she lacks a dominating fascination, the requisite phony-but-not-phony charisma that makes us all fall helplessly in love. Her gorgeous gowns, by Colleen Atwood, seem more made for the role than she does.
Cory Michael Smith, as narrator and adoring neighbor Fred, competently explains the overloaded backstory and makes us root for him -- if not for his gratuitous nude scene.
George Wendt is wasted as the bartender. So is Vito, the ginger feline who appears infrequently as the cat Holly calls Cat.
Were Holly Golightly, heroine of the beloved 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's, to breeze into a performance of the new Broadway play sharing its title, she'd last a half hour -- if that -- before turning to her companion of the moment and whispering into his ear. "Darling," she'd likely protest, "this is just too dreary. Let's get a drink, shall we?"
Fans of the movie might be inclined to agree -- as might many who have never seen it.
Richard Greenberg's stage version (* * out of four stars), which opened Wednesday at the Cort Theatre, is based more faithfully on the 1958 Truman Capote novella that inspired the screen classic, which isn't even mentioned in the credits. Like Capote's work, the play is set mostly in World War II-era New York, book-ended by scenes in 1957, in which the narrator -- a writer whom Holly calls Fred, after the adored brother left behind in the small town she abandoned -- recalls their relatively brief but memorable relationship.
Though that relationship still has sexual overtones, with Fred wishing to be closer to Holly than her schedule juggling wealthy admirers and wariness of emotional connections allow, Greenberg spells out what Capote hinted at: that he's also attracted to, and possibly prefers, men.
There are other reasons why this Holly and her one true friend in the big city don't ride off happily into a rainstorm, as they did in the film. Greenberg's central character is more genuinely reckless and self-destructive than her film counterpart -- factors that the playwright, whose credits include such thoughtful and entertaining works as The American Plan and Take Me Out, might have made compelling.
But as his text exposes her struggles and embellishes Fred's, the lines seem at once overheated and stiff. It doesn't help that director Sean Mathias encourages the actors emote in a manner authentic to the period -- an approach that fails Cory Michael Smith, whose Fred seems too studied, and looks curiously contemporary in his vintage suit.
The leading lady, rising star Emilia Clarke, seems more promising at first. A curvy young beauty who resembles a '40s pinup more than Audrey Hepburn's elegant gamine, she more nearly evokes Capote's prematurely jaded teenage runaway. Yet her performance, while highly competent, is strangely unmoving; only in a short scene where she sings on her fire escape -- not Moon River, but a melancholy traditional folk tune -- does she truly capture the vulnerability underlying Holly's cultivated coolness.
Reliable vets Lee Wilkof and Murphy Guyer lend engaging support as, respectively, a crass Hollywood agent and a good-natured hillbilly from Holly's past. George Wendt is convincing enough as a crusty but similarly soft-hearted bar owner revived from the novella.
Holly's four-legged pal Cat -- introduced by Capote, but featured more prominently on screen -- also pops up, briefly. Ginger-haired Vito Vincent, who alternates the role with another feline, earned delighted coos at a recent preview; would that the play itself generated such enthusiasm.
It’s like trying to ignore the elephant in the room, watching Richard Greenberg’s stage adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and trying not to think about Audrey Hepburn’s matchless performance in the 1961 Blake Edwards movie. The scribe and helmer Sean Mathias have walked the story back to its original World War II time frame, restored the pitiless ending and the sexuality of the gay narrator, and made Holly’s source of income less ambiguous. Good for them. But having restored Holly’s world, the creatives have neglected to put Holly in it.
Hepburn would have been entirely out of her element in this darker, drearier, more depressing wartime city where all the young men are fighting abroad and the streets belong to old men, damaged men, foreign men, and men with “old money and sour breath.”
As fabricated by set designer Derek McLane, the Manhattan of this era is exciting and forbidding, a metropolis of cramped apartments, looming skyscrapers (Wendall K. Harrington did the projections), cacophonous street sounds (supplied by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen), and edge-of-night lighting effects (designed by Peter Kaczorowski). Even the period costumes by Colleen Atwood tend to muted shades of gray.
This is the cheerless world that Holly Golightly lights up with her evanescent personality. As played by Emilia Clarke, the mother of dragons in “Game of Thrones,” this party girl is neither a sophisticated fashion plate nor a fragile wild child. She’s a clever girl who knows the market value of her mercurial charms and is too smart to sell herself cheap. (“I’m cash only” captures her cheerful attitude.)
But while Clarke is physically seductive, her mannered Holly is more calculating than charismatic. Which makes it tough for all the men who are infatuated with her to express their adoration with conviction.
Cory Michael Smith, who showed how sensitive he could be as the androgynous love object in “Cock,” proves just as engaging here as the neighbor Holly calls “Fred.” Alone among the eccentric tenants of their East Side brownstone, this precious Southern boy (a Capote alter ego) who writes precious Southern prose can see through Holly’s captivating gaiety and recognize another social outcast. Just as she can look past his faux innocence and spot another hustler.
The play is constructed like a Tennessee Williams memory play, with a contemporary (1957) narrative wrapped around Fred’s dreamy memories of the time (1943-44) when he and Holly were neighbors and friends. (For no good reason, except perhaps desperation, helmer Mathias has seen fit to dramatize their closeness with a nude scene.)
Mathias, who directed a previous adaptation of the play (by scribe Samuel Adamson) at the Royal Haymarket in 2009, holds his ground in the realistic 1950s scenes set in Joe’s Bar, a favorite haunt of Holly’s old party crowd. (The only time “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has been previously attempted on Broadway was in a 1966 musical version that played just four perfs and never even made it to opening.) George Wendt cuts through the nostalgia with a solid and rather touching portrayal of bar owner Joe Bell, who loved Holly in his own way.
Murphy Guyer delivers the same authenticity in the memory scenes, turning in strong, honest work as Doc, a figure from Holly’s past life in Tulip, Texas. “This here’s no humorous matter,” he says, which makes his character a notable exception among the broader-and-louder-than-life caricatures who inhabit the dreamlike world of Fred’s memory.
John Rothman, Lee Wilkof, and other veteran character actors come to no good as the parade of friends, admirers and sugar daddies who show up for the louche parties Holly throws for “tout le monde” in her tiny apartment.
Precious little imagination and less thought have gone into these awkwardly penned and monotonously staged party scenes, which exist only in Fred’s memory. Mathias may have been going for a surreal vibe, but clunky setpieces lumbering on and off for scene changes put the kibosh on that idea.
And then, of course, there’s still that elephant in the room.