at the Shubert Theatre


Organic Theater Company

Truman Capote just hated California; to die in Los Angeles, he thought, was redundant. Of course, when he did die there–in 1984, one month shy of 60–plenty of people thought his physical passing itself was redundant. Artistically and emotionally he was apparently exhausted, and his descent into drug and alcohol abuse and dangerously reckless behavior seemed to signal a barely unconscious suicidal drive. A once-brilliant artist and tireless mover and shaker had turned into something like a walking corpse.

But Capote is very lively and very much with us today. Chicago theater certainly is more receptive to Capote this season than during the notorious summer of 1967, when he shepherded his gal pal Lee Bouvier Radziwill through a laughable performance in The Philadelphia Story at the Ivanhoe (now Wellington) Theater. Capote’s beautiful autobiographical stories “The Thanksgiving Visitor” and “A Christmas Memory” are now being staged at Northlight Theatre under the collective title Holiday Memories; next month, Patti LaBelle is scheduled to star at the New Regal Theater in a revival of Capote’s musical House of Flowers. And center stage at the Shubert Theatre is Capote himself, in Jay Presson Allen’s monodrama Tru. Aging but elfin, he holds forth on subjects ranging from art to family sex to suicide in Robert Morse’s endlessly watchable, brilliantly detailed impersonation.

Aside from his diminutive height, Morse doesn’t look much like Capote–until he dons the extraordinary prosthetic makeup, by Kevin Haney, and tops it off with the thinning gray-haired wig, credited to Paul Huntley. But as he reminds us at the end of the evening, when he pulls off his disguise for a final bow, Morse’s familiar mischievous “I believe in you” persona makes him just right for the part of Capote. On top of that shared trait Morse marshals, under the playwright’s direction, superb physical technique, engaging warmth, and sharply focused concentration to create a thoroughly convincing portrait of an artist at a crucial turning point, heading from the height of his power and importance into a spiraling decline.

The time is Christmas week of 1975; the setting is Capote’s swank apartment in United Nations Plaza on Manhattan’s east side. This apartment, re-created by set designer David Mitchell, is remarkable for what it possesses–a sprawling picture window with a magnificent view of the New York skyline (“It’s lovely, just lovely, to sit here–with drinks,” coos Capote), wall stacked high with books, a weirdly mismatched collection of plaster cats and Victorian furniture (“Good taste is the death of art”)–but also for what it doesn’t: a fourth wall. After starting out talking on the telephone as if he were alone at home, Morse’s Tru suddenly takes note of the audience, quickly taking us into his confidence with the gullible (or arrogant) openness always commented on by those who knew him. While most one-person shows establish a logical explanation for the audience’s presence, Tru doesn’t bother. Morse casually breaks down unnecessary “reality”: stooping over to pick up a Christmas-tree ornament off the floor, he sighs to the viewers, “This falls down every time the curtain goes up.” The surrealistic flourish works–because of Morse’s confident command of the stage, and because the audience is happy to suspend any disbelief for the privilege of dishing the dirt with one of America’s greatest writers and biggest celebrities.

Capote’s dual identity is the key to Tru’s success–and, the play suggests, to his decline. At what point did Capote the artist get swallowed up by Capote the publicity hound? When did the persona overwhelm the person? Tru dodges these questions with a series of anecdotes and apologias, veering between witty defiance and whining self-pity as he discusses the circumstances that have left him very much alone on the day before Christmas of 1975. It’s shortly after Esquire magazine published excerpts from Answered Prayers–the never-finished would-be masterpiece that Capote envisioned as his Remembrance of Things Past, a Proustian dissection of the international high society through which he moved as a sort of mascot in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. When the Esquire excerpts appeared, stuffed full of scandalous gossip and cruel mockeries of Capote’s purported friends, Capote was suddenly iced out. Though he tried to dismiss it–“What do they think they had around them, a court jester? They had a writer”–the ostracism wounded him much more deeply than he wanted to admit; ironically, it also made him more famous than ever. In one particularly barbed moment in Tru, a Western Union operator talking to Capote on the phone expresses her support for him and her contempt for his former friends’ reactions; her admiration is proof he’s achieved the fame he wanted, but at the expense of important private relationships.

Cut off by his former friends–and even temporarily deserted by Jack Dunphy, his longtime companion–Tru takes some solace in dropping the names of notables he’s known. This truly eclectic collection includes Andy Warhol (“He always wanted someone to call him ‘Daddy'”), Louis Armstrong, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams, Adlai Stevenson (there were rumors they were lovers), John and Robert Kennedy and their killers, Marilyn Monroe, and Ava Gardner (with whom he is about to go discoing at Studio 54–talk about things past!). He recalls important and troubling childhood experiences–his parents’ divorce, his mother’s alcoholism, a visit to a fortune-teller who laughed at him when he expressed a secret wish to be a girl, military school (where he turned more homosexual instead of less), and the time he got in trouble as a child in Alabama after an unflattering story he wrote about a neighbor, “Mrs. Busybody,” was published in the local newspaper. (Some people never learn.)

These and other illuminating tidbits, many gleaned from interviews in publications ranging from the New York Times to Interview, are stitched into mostly convincing conversation by playwright Allen. (There is one glaring error: Capote jokes that he’s stockpiled enough downers “to stage my own Jonestown massacre,” but that slaughter didn’t take place until 1978.) What’s missing, unfortunately, is much evidence of Capote’s art: except for a tantalizing taste of “A Christmas Memory” read aloud, the focus is on the life, not the work. But the passion–positive and negative alike–that Capote felt for people, ranging from Manhattan’s social elite to dead-end types like the Kansas killers Capote profiled in his masterful In Cold Blood, registers strongly in Tru. As contradictory and messy as he was, Capote had one important thing going for him as an artist: he wrote about people because they fascinated him. That fascination forges a strong bond between Morse’s Tru and the audience fortunate enough to see him.

The mechanics by which Richard Milhous Nixon confronts his audience in Nixon Live! The Future Is Now! are somewhat more elaborate than those in Tru. In this one-act comedy, directed by Richard Fire at the Organic Theater after evolving over the last year at various performance venues, the former president has stopped for a drink during a visit to Chicago at Ricky’s Tiki Lounge (that’s “Tiki” as in tacky; note the Christmas-light-festooned barroom setting by Eric Wegener). Tricky Dick just wants to relax, have a drink, listen to some music, and shoot off his mouth, so he’s receptive when the bar’s owner (unctuously played by Darryl Warren) convinces him to take inquiries from the club’s other patrons (us). Warren serves as the microphone-wielding surrogate Donahue.

The question-and-answer session comes after a long, meandering conversation between Nixon and lounge pianist Jimi Jihad (Michael Zerang), a Middle Eastern refugee whose musical style can best be described as schlock of Araby. While Jimi noodles through barely recognizable modal medleys of Gershwin and Lerner and Loewe songs, Nixon rambles on about life in and out of politics, commenting defensively about “the basic fairness of the American people.” He recalls important lessons learned from his Quaker upbringing (singing “We Three Kings” at Christmastime reminded him of the three branches of government), the winning-is-everything ethic of his Whittier College football coach, his favorite movie (Patton, of course), his dealings with the press (“God bless the media, but some of them fabricate a story”), and his eventual successor Ronald Reagan (whom he conscientiously refers to as “former president”), who makes Nixon look better in retrospect than anybody would ever have thought possible.

The problem is, none of this is very funny. Frank Melcori, the author and star of this impersonation, is quite effective in the role of Nixon: though obviously too young and healthy for the character, he has Nixon’s hard-edged voice, jerky gestures, and goofily nervous smile down pat. And he keeps in character well even when subjected to digging jokes from real-life friends in the audience, as he was at the press opening. (When will theaters learn not to stack opening night with cliques? It does much more harm than good.)

But Melcori’s material is limp; the most amusing bits come during Nixon’s absurd encounter with the Muslim cocktail pianist (Jihad’s straight-from-the-bazaar haggling over the price per song provides the show’s funniest moments). But Nixon Live! isn’t about Jimi Jihad; it’s about one of America’s most complex and important figures, a man who embodies the tensions between government and politics every bit as much as, say, Truman Capote embodies the conflict between art and celebrity. Melcori simply trades on the obvious man-you-love-to-hate gimmick. Nixon deserves more, and so do we.