Truman Talks Tennessee

 

An intriguing and moving portrait of two legendary American literary figures.

 

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By Joel Benjamin

 

Joel Vig, yeoman actor, Broadway veteran, author and director, has written a moving one-person play, Truman Talks Tennessee, an imaginary talk given by Truman Capote about his “frenemy” Tennessee Williams.

Gliding onto the stage at the Metropolitan Room to the tune of “Moon River,” he became Capote, dressed in a white linen suit with a large tropical-weight white hat on his head. He smoothly turned the Met Room into the Ballroom in the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans in 1984 as he gave a thumbnail sketch of his life: how he took his name, his early writing, working at the New Yorker, collecting expensive glass paperweights and, last, but not least, meeting the mercurial Tennessee Williams, a kindred Southern spirit. The two cemented their never-sexual relationship on the Queen Mary returning from England after the surprisingly disastrous debut of The Glass Menagerie in London.

An entertaining incident with a randy Episcopalian Bishop kept the two writers amused during that trip.

As their careers took off in different directions they remained friends, although the relationship was decidedly bumpy. The list of famous theatrical, literary and musical celebrities that peppered the play included Carson McCullers (who got Capote into the eminent writers’ colony, Yaddo), Jane Bowles (expatriate living in Tangiers), Gore Vidal (who became a notoriously jealous adversary) and Yukio Mishima (who enjoyed the gay life in NYC away from Japan and later committed hara-kiri).

There was also a long section on Lady Maria St. Just, a divisive, self-serving, self-created figure, who had, at least according to Capote, a darkly evil influence on Williams’ life. She wound up as Williams’ much hated literary executor after his death.

Capote credited Williams’ ability to survive all his ups and downs to his relationship with Frank Merlo whose death in 1962 signaled the emotional and psychological decline of the great playwright. He slowly fell into excessive drug and alcohol use culminating with his sad demise, choking on the cap of a pill bottle, at the legendary Elysée Hotel in midtown.

Unfortunately, Williams took umbrage at a character Capote created in Answered Prayers which was uncomfortably close to a mean-spirited parody of Williams.   Thereafter, the Capote/Williams friendship was damaged, a rift that never quite closed.

Vig filled the hour-long work with many personal details: how the two were frequently ejected from movie theaters for misbehaving; seeing Williams just a few weeks before he died; how the two handled an irate husband at a café in Key West; and how a shy, shabbily dressed Williams was virtually dragged onto the stage after the explosive opening night of A Streetcar Named Desire. This last image closed the show with Capote conflating Williams and Blanche Dubois—both always depending on “the kindness of strangers.”

The dialogue was dotted with adroit quotes from popular song lyrics such as “Sail Away,” “Moon River” and “The Party’s Over,” to emphasize plot points.

Vig never overdid the lisping or mincing affectations that Capote impersonators love to exaggerate. His quick shifts from Capote to the honey-voiced Williams were remarkable. This wasn’t an impersonation of two mythical figures. It was a total immersion that left the audience not only admiring Williams and Capote, but Joel Vig’s acting talent as well.

 

Truman Talks Tennessee/Joel Vig (September 23, 2015)

Metropolitan Room 34 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

For reservations: 212-206-0440 or www.metropolitanroom.com

Running time: one hour

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