Friday, March 29, 2013

On Broadway: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Hands on a Hardbody”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Adapted by Richard Greenberg from Truman Capote’s novella; directed by Sean Matthias
Performances began March 4, 2013
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Hands on a Hardbody
Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green, book by Doug Wright; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances began February 23, 2013
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Vito Vincent and Emilia Clarke in Breakfast at Tiffany's (photo: Nathan Johnson)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, originally a novella by Truman Capote, is best known as Blake Edwards’ 1961 movie which took liberties with its heroine Holly Golightly—no one would believe that pure Audrey Hepburn was a prostitute. So the Broadway play, adapted by Richard Greenberg, is closer to Capote, but makes his story stilted and lifeless.

Naive writer Fred, recently arrived in New York, is a thinly veiled portrait of Capote; his befriending Golightly—the sexy, magnetic but ultimately ungraspable embodiment of the perfect woman—is pure fantasy, of course. The movie played up that aspect through Hepburn’s innate glamour, and never explained why all those men hang around her apartment. 

Greenburg’s adaptation doesn’t shy away from Golightly’s moonlighting, but what it gains in verisimilitude it loses in eccentric charm. Both the setting—pre-Mad Men Manhattan (late ‘40s and ‘50s)—and the characters are not individualized enough to be made interesting onstage for two acts. Sean Matthias’s tentative directing doesn’t help: the scenes stumble on and off the stage, accompanied by Derek McLane’s agile but non-descript sets.

The show’s best cast member, playing a cat named Cat whom Golightly adopts, goes by the name of Vito Vincent, a fantastically good ginger tabby. Emilia Clarke—from HBO’s Game of Thrones—works hard as Holly, but nothing she does feels natural or organic, which is fatal for such an irresistible charmer. Cory Michael Smith’s Fred has a gawkiness that serves him well, but he and Clarke have no chemistry—they’re more engaged when Cat is onstage. 

Hands on a Hardbody cast (photo: Chad Batka)
The 1997 film Hands on a Hardbody documented an offbeat contest presented as a Texas auto dealership’s promotion: to win a new truck, contestants had to stand for as long as they could without taking one hand off the vehicle, and the last one standing wins the truck. It doesn’t sound like much in the way of drama, but here it is, adapted into a new Broadway musical with Phish’s Trey Anastasio composing the music with Amanda Green, who penned the lyrics, and playwright Doug Wright wrote the book.

This agreeably scruffy show doesn’t have a compelling reason to exist—how many ways can onstage contestants sing while circling a glistening red Nissan truck, confessing their hopes, dreams, disillusionments?—but it also sneaks up on you. The longer the contest lasts, the more we are intrigued by their quirky stories, although dramatic manipulativeness prevents the show from becoming a new They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the classic 1968 marathon dance drama.

There are songs about faith in God (“Joy of the Lord”), being a Mexican-American (“Born in Laredo”) or working at UPS (“I’m Gone”), but Anastasio and Green’s music, mainly ersatz country-rock, has a numbing sameness, and Green’s lyrics—which at least never rhyme “truck” with a certain F-word—are barely serviceable (sample: “I work at the UPS/the job is pretty good I guess”). Wright’s book, while clever, can’t sustain its gimmick for two-plus hours.

Neil Pepe’s directing and Sergio Trujillo’s musical staging are inventive enough to keep interest from waning, and the cast does its best to make us care about these fuzzy individuals, each of whom gets a chance to shine solo. Hunter Foster (Sutton’s brother), Keith Carradine, Allison Case, Jacob Ming-Trent, Keala Settle and Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone provide enough pizzazz to give this slight show a push in the right direction.

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