It’s tough to get a handle on Truman Capote.
The enigmatic author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” evaded easy classification while he was alive, sometimes playing the trusted confidant and sometimes the cold-eyed journalist. After his death in 1984, Capote only became more mysterious.
Each new attempt to peer deeper into his soul, from an exhaustive 1998 biography to two broad-stroke biopics, raised new questions about a man who remains one of the slipperiest figures in literary history.
“Tru,” the 1988 one-man play by Jay Presson Allen that opened on the Buffalo United Artists stage last Friday, doesn’t do much to solve the riddle. But thanks to a sensitive and moving performance from Christopher Standart, it does manage to reveal a fascinating side of Capote many haven’t seen before.
The play is set in Capote’s New York City apartment in the days before Christmas 1975. It was a particularly challenging time for the author. He had just released a venomous excerpt from his long-awaited and never-to-be-completed novel “Answered Prayers” in Esquire, which had enraged many in his circle of wealthy and powerful friends.
Utterly alone except for his two constantly ringing telephones, Capote finds himself in the midst of an extended bout of self-pity, fueled by alcohol and only made worse by his overactive imagination. The members of the audience get to play shrinks to the depressive Capote, who theorizes endlessly about his role as a chronicler of the rich and his affinity for certain types of damaged, lonely creatures.
Standart has approached the role with a clear grasp of Capote’s mannerisms and affectations, those extremely stylized movements and utterances that made him an instant curiosity wherever he went. But he doesn’t go down the road of caricature, revealing from the start the roiling emotional undercurrent that seemed to underpin everything Capote wrote and thought at this particular point of his life.
“I have lived an astonishing life, and I have known everybody,” he declares toward the start of the play. But Standart’s performance makes clear, even in that supposedly confident declaration, the self-doubt and insecurity at its heart. He goes on: “I collect things like a magpie, but I don’t much love them when I’ve got them.”
We watch as Standart’s Capote halfheartedly decorates the Christmas tree in his apartment, as he sways in his gray cardigan to “The Boy From Ipanema,” and as he chats on the phone with agents about ex-lovers and sends drunken telegrams to the friends he has left. Sometimes he addresses the audience, sometimes the person on the other end of the telephone line, and sometimes he seems to address only himself. The setup, kept moving at a healthy clip by director Joyce Stilson, works.
There’s no doubt that Allen’s account of Capote’s later life is sympathetic, and it leaves out some of the more vicious and perhaps pathological aspects of the author’s personality. That’s OK, because it leaves enough bone-dry bons mots and cutting insights to sustain our interest, and then some.
Aside from a grueling coda – in which the play seems to end at least four times before plodding toward its poetic conclusion – Allen and Standart have presented a worthwhile look into the life and mind of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and ultimately unknowable characters.
When: Through Oct. 27
Where: Buffalo United Artists Theater, 119 Chippewa St.
Tickets: $15 to $25
Info: 886-9239 or www.buffalobua.org