NEW YORK — Early in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the new Richard Greenberg adaptation of the 1958 Truman Capote novella, Emilia Clarke's Holly Golightly climbs into bed with Fred, our narrator, played here by Cory Michael Smith. She passes out fast. And Fred is probably gay. Nonetheless, the presence of this beautiful, available young woman in his bed is a signature moment for this young gentleman from Louisiana.
Miss Golightly has done anything but go lightly, really, careening through 1943 Manhattan with a sexualized jolt, teasing businessmen and socialities with a sophistication that she has invented from whole cloth. Her voice — seemingly spawned in the middle of the Atlantic — is as seductive as her behavior and attire. She is a woman who surely will burn herself up, we know, but not before emitting a whole lot of heat. Self-evidently, Fred can talk about no one else. The show depends on the articulation of his infatuation, just as Miss Golightly pays careful attention to maintaining the interest of others, without which she would fail to exist.
Perhaps Fred's interest is enormous. Perchance it's brotherly or merely aesthetic. But especially as Holly lies there vulnerable, there has to be interest. It's hard to imagine Capote could ever have imagined Fred as neutral and blank and, well, dull as he seems in that notable moment in director Sean Mathias' production.
The central problem with this disappointing show has nothing to do with the ghost of Audrey Hepburn, whose Hollywood take on this particular character may well have tempted many thousands of small-town girls to head to Manhattan with the aim of beginning (and ending) the day at expensive jewelers or their metaphoric equivalent, along with someone who might pay the bill. Hepburn forged memorably sensual perfection, kissed with artifice, but she was less at home with the young lady's roots, far from Fifth Avenue. The problem here is of simpler vintage: There's no palpable connection between Fred and Holly, the unlikely and surely ill-fated couple of Capote's imagination. One can watch this entire misguided and miscast production without really discerning what the one feels about the other.
Clarke, who is best known for her work on "Game of Thrones," the HBO show in which she frequently appears without her clothes, is a rising young actress with some of the right sensibility for Golightly. She has the air of an impostor, which is good (and her best quality in this role). She has certain insouciance. But this is not a nuanced performance that reveals personal dislocation or pain, or some emptiness inside, or any kind of journey. No crisis ensues, even if events transpire to the desperate point where her cat is better off as a stray. One does not sense too much limelight wrecking a girl's complexion. Rather, Clarke gets trapped in that famous Golightly accent, wearing herself out with a series of plumy, repetitive speech patterns that squelch most of her truth and seem to prevent her from revealing much at all — beyond what slips out in a bathtub in a ill-conceived bit of self-conscious sensuality that is about as subtle as a hit job.
The other problem with Mathias' show, which features a set designed by Derek McLane, is that it misses the exuberance of the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" novella, a book with a dark soul, sure, but also a satirical celebration of aspiration that was very good for at least one jeweler's image. If the once-ordinary Holly could reinvent herself entirely on the streets of New York, and have a bartender named Joe (played here by George Wendt) madly in love with her every move, then why not you? Or me? We just don't have the guts. That's why this work is famous.
Capote understood the dangers of trying to start from scratch — the past will come out, and all that — but he also knew its appeal. And so, of course, did Hepburn. Greenberg tries to underscore this crucial ambivalence in his text, and he tries to set out a fatalistic celebration of courage, but the invasive mores of this production keep toppling all that. The palette for this show is dark and brooding, closer to something one might associate with Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" than a vista of a gorgeous girl with an empty bookcase but a party always beginning in her head.
The further one gets from the central relationship, the stronger the show. Murphy Guyer, who plays Doc, is sincere and moving. And the once-again-healthy Wendt is, as ever, just a tad more complex than you'd expect. And a ginger-colored cat named Vito Vincent steals a couple of scenes that would not overextend any self-respecting theatrical feline.
"Breakfast at Tiffany's" plays on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.; 800-432-7250 or telecharge.com
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