by Anthony Chase
This week, Tru, Jay Presson Allen’s one-man play about Truman Capote, opens at Buffalo United Artists with Christopher Standart as the Truman Capote, under the direction of Joyce Stilson. When Tru opened on Broadway in 1989, Capote had only been dead for five years. His flamboyant mannerisms, whiney voice, and devilishly wry humor were still familiar to the American public from countless television appearances during the Golden Age of talk shows.
Capote’s 30-year literary output had been impressive. Other Voices, Other Rooms, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and In Cold Blood are the most notable titles. He had the talent of Balzac for spinning life into fiction. In Cold Blood, for example, followed a real-life murder in a Kansas farming community. The author travelled to the town, and over the course of four years, he got to know everyone involved in the case, including the killers.
This technique of spinning fact into fiction would earn Capote condemnation from those who thought he benefitted from the execution of the accused. Kenneth Tynan denounced him, saying he’d encouraged the execution to enhance the sales of his book.
That theme of being a kind of literary vampire would return in 1975 when Esquire magazine printed four chapters of Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, and Manhattan socialites recognized themselves. Capote saw himself to be an artist documenting his times and a particular social set, like Proust, like Thackeray, like Balzac. Like those authors, he valued his well-connected friends for their stories. He thought they valued him as an artist. He was wrong. They valued him for his celebrity. He became a social pariah.
This is the point at which Jay Presson Allen picks up the Truman Capote story in Tru. It is Christmastime, 1975. Capote’s friends are few and far between.
The original audience was astounded and mesmerized by Robert Morse’s portrayal of Capote. I have vivid memories of him impersonating the trilling laughter and husky whisper I had heard so often speaking to Dick Cavett, David Frost, or Johnny Carson. I recall laughing heartily when Morse, as Capote, described the poinsettia as “the Bob Goulet of botany,” and then laughing even harder when he tossed the plant out the back door while singing Goulet’s signature song, “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Morse won the Tony Award and the play was filmed for television.
Many, however, were disturbed by the tragic presentation of a man who was still a vivid memory. Some had difficulty reconciling the great author of the early years, with the tragic clown of the declining years.
It is fascinating to revisit Tru more than 20 years later, with the memory of the real Capote muted by time. It is now possible to read Jay Presson Allen’s script less as an act of necrophilia and more as an exploration of great talent squandered. Memories of Truman Capote, and memories of sadness that might have accompanied them, no longer interfere.
For her part, Jay Presson Allen herself would make an interesting character study. Known as the author of the stage plays The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Forty Carats, and for the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and George Cukor’s Travels with My Aunt, she was a vivid personality in her own right. She wrote Tru at the request of the Truman Capote estate. She had not known Capote well and was, at first, reluctant to take on the project. Nonetheless, she had the uncanny ability to evoke the Truman Capote persona. While the play is billed a work adapted from the words of Capote, it is widely agreed that a huge percentage of the script comes entirely from the imagination of the remarkable Jay Presson Allen. Ironically, some of the lines for which he is best remembered are actually hers.
Tru will play through October 27 at BUA Theater.
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