The only thing wrong with "Tru," Robert Morse's devastating portrayal of Truman Capote that opened this week in Baltimore, is that it's not long enough.
He leaves us wanting more -- more coruscating wit, more delicious dirt and more of the strangely endearing elf who invites us into his living room. At the end, Capote leaves for a holiday get-together he desperately hopes will be festive, but we'd like to stick around for a while, lounging on his silly Victorian sofa, and hear the end of the story.
Morse's achievement -- for which he won a well-deserved Tony award earlier this year -- is that he goes beyond the easily caricatured oddness of the Capote persona, the squeaky, geeky voice and effeminate mannerisms, the self-dramatizing and the bitchiness, and gets to the complex artist who is both more and less than those parts. In some ways the portrait, written by Jay Presson Allen using the words Capote left behind, is a study of the neurotic as a middle-aged man -- fully aware of his faults and needs, but incapable of resisting them. This is a man who woke up every day with a "sense of dread" that something awful was going to happen, who feared rejection and yet guaranteed it, who kept you from thinking him pathetic by being the first to feel sorry for himself.
Set in the week before Christmas of 1975, the play shows Capote at 51, facing the fallout from his just-published excerpt of "Answered Prayers," the novel he planned to be his "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" but which turned out to be his Waterloo. He wrote about his dearest friends, the wealthy and the super-wealthy whom he had mooched from and taken notes on for years. He is stunned at the vehemence with which they are rejecting him -- how could they be surprised, he argues, didn't they know he was a writer and writers always use their own lives as material?
The hurt is just beginning to set in during the time span of "Tru." The phones (he has two) are not as busy as usual; he gets calls from his attorney, his agent, a secretary, but of his friends only Carol Matthau calls to wish him well. The only ones he will really miss, he says, are "Babe and Slim," Babe Paley and Slim Keith. At this point, he believes they will get over their pique and sends telegrams to them both. "I have decided to forgive you," he cables Slim Keith, but in fact -- as we might have learned if the script finished things off a little better -- she never did.
"... I never spoke to him again," Keith wrote in memoirs published before her death earlier this year. "And neither did Babe Paley... . I had been exploited. Now I was embarrassed."
Capote, who died in 1984, never understood why his friends didn't welcome his scathing use of their lives in his art, a blindness that probably allowed him to be a writer in the first place. Curiously, he tells how his first published story presaged the "Answered Prayers" debacle. When he wrote about the people in his town, even though he was only 8, they stopped talking to him. And he tells that story without any indication that he learned anything from the experience.
And yet, of course, he was right about one thing. If the novel had been a hit, they would all probably have been fawning over him again. But the published excerpt was considered a literary embarrassment, and in the end he wrote only three chapters, which were published posthumously.
Meanwhile, he is preparing somewhat manically for Christmas, decorating a tree and wrapping piles of gifts that one sadly fears may never be given, except for the travel clock from Tiffany's he has bought for the elevator operator. He orders thousands of dollars' worth of flowers to be sent to friends (white narcissus for the A list, white orchids for the B list), and intermittently plays tacky Christmas carols on his stereo.
He disdains a huge poinsettia his attorney has sent him ("Poinsettias are the Robert Goulet of flowers," he snipes), and goes out disco dancing with Ava Gardner. Who else would sit musing the next day about disco dancing, how "democratic" it is, and thinking up historical figures who would have enjoyed it? "Toulouse-Lautrec would have loved disco dancing."
He tap-dances, he drinks, he tries not to drink, decides to take Gardner's advice and get a face lift and lose weight, and talks. The view from his apartment at United Nations Plaza is splendid (as is its replication by set designer David Mitchell), but the demons are gathering, and when, at the end, he tosses his bright red, excessively long muffler around his neck, puts on a large brimmed black hat and dark glasses and visibly gathers his spirits for the evening ahead, there is a sad sense of doom in the air. Earlier, a portrait of him as a beautiful young man has been returned by a former lover; after admiring it longingly he punches his fist through the canvas. He accidentally scratches a record of Christmas songs, the needle tearing across the plastic like a psychic gouge, a small sound of despair.
Morse inhabits the part so intimately it is hard to imagine anyone else playing it. He does not try to imitate Capote's high-pitched voice (could we have spent an hour and a half with that?), but his fluttering hands, lunging gestures, and the lizard tongue that darts out at particularly mean moments, are but physical manifestations of an eerily profound characterization.
He's vicious, he's whiny, he's outrageous -- he's divine.
Tru, written and directed by Jay Presson Allen, from the words and works of Truman Capote. With Robert Morse. At the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore through Oct. 28.