On the Cusp of Caricature

Darrell Hammond plays a convincing if quiet Truman Capote in the play “Tru” at the Bay Street Theatre through the end of the month. Jerry Lamonica

    Truman Capote, the writer of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” is fascinating as a “personality” (to use the jargon). He was one of those early television talk show couch-warmers who clearly saw that his fame and popularity were derived as much from being his own self-created character as they were from what he had actually accomplished. Of course, in recent decades this media-marketing of the celebrity self evolved to the point where many today are known chiefly for being colorful, not for doing anything at all.
    The play “Tru” by Jay Presson Allen, now showing at the Bay Street Theatre and starring Darrell Hammond, captures Capote right around the time when he began creeping into caricature.
    It is Christmastime, and he is alone in one of those ubiquitous white-brick postwar modern apartments on the East Side of Manhattan, overlooking the United Nations, complete with all the mid-1970s accouterments:  wood wall-bracket shelving units, a stereo system with built-in cassette player and turntable, a phone with multiple lines and a red “hold” button.
    (It is a well-reconstructed interior that a person from a certain generation can read at a glance. Watching the play, I found myself entering a strange reverie, nostalgic for what was a rather ugly time by design standards.)
    Capote finds himself in the midst of a very 1970s dilemma. Esquire magazine has just published an excerpt from his most recent novel, a thinly veiled roman a clef about life among the ladies who lunch on the Upper East Side; affronted by this indiscretion, all his famous society friends have turned their skinny backs on him.
    If this happened today, Capote might suffer a short-lived backlash, but all he would have to do to set things to rights would be to admit, tearfully, that he had a drinking, drug, or sex addiction, and all would soon be forgiven. In “Tru,” Capote admits he should not drink, but he continually indulges himself — in marijuana, cocaine, chocolate, and even the booze he tries to resist. There is something rather thrilling in his easy abandonment to vice, another relic of a bygone era.
    While fretting about his social ostracism, he fields phone calls from lawyers, associates, and those friends who still deign to speak to him. He doesn’t actually lack for company.
    The play, in two acts, is a one-man juggernaut that explores the past and present of a tortured soul. It is all one character, one voice, occupying one unchanging and at times claustrophobic set. It is quite an undertaking.
    Mr. Hammond’s performance has been well received. I happen to be a fan of his impersonations and his comedy, but I was a bit disappointed on Saturday night: He had been sick and had canceled the previous two performances. On Saturday, he played to a full house.
    Physically, Mr. Hammond was in charge of all his character’s tics and inflections and gave a performance that was in perfect measure exasperating, off-putting, and inspiring of sympathy; he captured all the complexities of Capote’s personality and personal issues. His embodiment of the character helped deepen a play that was, otherwise, a rather summary treatment of its subject’s problems.
    Despite Mr. Hammond’s gameness to go on, there was a slackness and lethargy in the production as well. Part of the problem was acoustics. It was almost impossible to catch the subtle nuances of what he was saying — or, in some cases, to hear what he was saying at all. I was surprised to see a small microphone taped to his face. It should have been turned up a bit, to a volume that was audible but still intimate.
    Capote, as many readers know, spent a great deal of time on the South Fork. He owned a house near the ocean in Sagaponack from 1961 until his death in 1984. Parts of “In Cold Blood,” perhaps his greatest book, were written there. According to a 1976 article in Architectural Digest, he called Sagaponack “Kansas with a sea breeze,” and he told the interviewer who visited his house that day that “this is a place to be alone.”
    Clearly, from what we see in the play, New York City was not.