The Studio @620, 620 1st Ave. S., St. Pete. July 14-16 & 20-23, 7 p.m.; July 17 & 24, 2 p.m.; July 20-23, 7 p.m. $25 (limited Red Member tickets accepted; RSVP). 727-895-6620. thestudioat620.org.
We see in Chambers’s cherubic face the child that Truman Capote in many ways always was.
Mark Chambers's performance as Truman Capote is as comfortably lived-in as the tattered but elegant NYC apartment where we happily spend an evening with him in Tru, now playing at The Studio@620. I'd call this engrossing one-man show a tour de force, except that the acting isn't forced at all; as Chambers showed us in A Tale of Two Cities at American Stage, he's a gifted chameleon, able to make quicksilver shifts in mood and vocal style.
That was useful in Tale because he was playing more than a dozen roles. With Capote, he’s tasked with conveying the mercurial moods of a man who was himself a kind of chameleon — the literary wunderkind turned true-crime journalist turned social butterfly who alienated his high-society pals when he revealed their secrets in his unfinished novel Answered Prayers. It’s at that unhappy juncture that we meet him at Christmastime, 1975. Shunned by his “swans,” the Babe Paleys and Slim Keiths in whose circles he traveled until they read the excerpt in Esquire, he is trying to reconcile his dedication to art vs. his desire for acceptance. Over two days, he drinks, he decorates the tree, he drinks some more, he talks on the phone, he drunk-dials telegrams (remember telegrams?), he smokes a little pot and eats a lot of candy, he wraps and unwraps presents, he dances and prances and — most of all — he remembers, with rue and wit, the sparkling but often troubled life he has led.
The persistent question with most one-man shows — who is this person talking to and why is he talking so much? — does come up when you’re watching this one. Chambers and his director, Lisa Powers Tricomi, meet the conundrum head on by having Tru talk much of the time directly to the audience; he even flirts with some of the folks sitting in the front row. This break in the fourth wall feels perfectly apt since a) Capote was in some sense always preening for an audience, whether real or imagined, and b) Chambers is such an amiable, generous performer that we already feel like we’re guests in his living room, so why shouldn’t he be talking to us?
And for Capote, the non-stop dazzling raconteur, talking was as necessary as breathing. He did it better than anyone else, for one thing; the script (adapted by Jay Presson Allen from Capote's writings) is rich in laugh-out-loud aperçus, delivered with impish style by Chambers. He’s hilariously aghast at receiving a “veritable horse trough of poinsettias” as a gift, and muses that what people like to hear best from him when he’s gossiping is "something horrendous about someone impeccable. Don't we all?" Chambers captures Capote’s trademark Deep-Southhampton drawl, relishing syllables as if they were delicious bonbons: “I’m a pa-RI-ah!” and “I flew in on the RED-eye!” Interestingly, we only hear the childlike treble for which he was best-known (and much-mocked) when he answers the phone, as if that voice too were a kind of performance.
This Capote is also unexpectedly moving. When his eyes widen in horror as he remembers the hanging of the two young killers he met through his "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood, we feel viscerally the impact that experience had on him as a writer and as a human being. And when he drifts backward in time, reminiscing about his beautiful, suicidal mother (the woman he was perhaps seeking in his relationships with the “swans”), his past lovers or, most touchingly, his childhood with his beloved auntie “Sook” (memorialized in his Christmas and Thanksgiving “Memory” books), we see in Chambers’s cherubic face the child that Truman Capote in many ways always was.
Kudos to Tricomi, lighting/scene designer Kenny Jensen and producer Bonnie Agan for realizing Tru’s world so fully, from the Burberry plaids to the floaty kimono to the music on the stereo. And most of all to Chambers, who literally caps his uncanny impersonation of Capote in a final moment, when Tru, heading out the door for one more party, dons his trademark black chapeau. The song on the stereo is Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” — about a poor boy with no gift to give but his art — and like Chambers’s performance the moment is poignant, yes, but not pitiable. It's, despite everything, rather noble.