One of the first rules taught in writing classes is to show, don’t tell. Unfortunately, the creative team behind Breakfast at Tiffany’s did not heed this rule when penning this play. The sluggishly over-narrated production, currently playing at the Cort Theater on Broadway, needs, to quote another well-known pop icon, a little less talk and a little more action.
Based on the 1958 novella by Truman Capote, which was then adapted into a 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s tells the tale of a young writer forming a relationship with his neighbor, a flighty young woman named Holly Golightly. While the nature of their relationship in the film differed greatly from the book, this adaptation is more faithful to the book – a choice that turns out to be both an asset and a detriment to the story. Narrated by the nameless man (Holly calls him “Fred,” because he reminds her of her brother, of the same name), Breakfast at Tiffany’s tells the tale of the one year Fred knew Holly, while living in a brownstone on the Upper East Side.
Unemployed and uncommitted, Holly obtains her income by dating wealthy men who give her money when she goes to “the powder room.” She meets Fred (Cory Michael Smith) by slipping through his bedroom window through the fire escape late one night in order to escape a man in her own apartment. Fred is immediately infatuated with her and the two form a flighty friendship which Fred speaks of frequently but is never actually solidified in the scenes the two actors share onstage. The apparent camaraderie between Holly and Fred, which he talks of while narrating the show directly to the audience, and fuels his devotion to her, is largely absent from the play.
Directed by Sean Mathias with a script by Richard Greenberg, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is firmly rooted in nostalgia. Photographs of New York during World War II are projected onstage before the show begins. Big-band music of the era is played between Derek McLane’s set of sliding pieces, which are heightened by Wendall K. Harrington’s projections and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting. Colleen Atwood’s beautiful costumes are also-period perfect; the only thing lacking are the performances.
Holly is played by Emilia Clarke, of the television show Game of Thrones, making her stage debut. While Clarke is lovely, and her luscious costumes enhance her curves, her performance is strangely flat. Her accent is over-affected, and every line sounds laboriously delivered. Her repeated use of the word “Darling” is grating rather than ingratiating, and, despite hearing a man from Holly’s past talk of the wild young thing she apparently once was, there is no hint of it in the Holly we see onstage. It’s impossible to believe that the girl in the black dress once stole turkey eggs and went by the name Lulamae.
The lack of excitement Clarke inspires as Holly is a detriment to the entire show, because if the central character inspires neither interest nor sympathy, how can the audience remain invested in a story that centers around her? Breakfast at Tiffany’s is told in flashbacks, as Fred returns to his old stomping grounds to learn of Holly’s apparent whereabouts. Smith plays an eager, naive Fred, successfully depicting his character’s vulnerability and innocence, leading us to believe why he became so fascinated with this strange young woman. But the reason that fascination continues is another issue and one that this show does not satisfy. Given how flippantly Holly treats Fred, why does he continue to pursue her? And in what way is he pursuing her? It is never clear whether his interest in Holly is sexual or not, because the script includes references to Fred’s homosexuality, but it also includes a passionate embrace on the Brooklyn Bridge, and a scene of the two taking a bath together during which both actors are completely naked onstage. This ambiguity may have been appealing in a book, but onstage it is frustrating.
The character of Holly Golightly was inspiring to many a woman, both to pursue the lifestyle she wanted and to re-write the story of her life in the process – but this Holly is an unfinished story. She tells Fred she has plans and he is not a part of them, but we never get a glimpse of what those plans are. And it seems like everyone in the story wants to dictate those plans for Holly. People seem to be drawn to her like a moth to a flame, but it is only to protect the moth from being swatted.
For it is not only Fred who adores Holly; the neighborhood bartender, gruffly and tenderly played by George Wendt, also admires her, and some of the numerous men in her life are played by Tony Torn, Pedro Carmo, Murphy Guyer and Lee Wilkof. Everyone seems to want to marry her or shield her from the world – or, as one man said – from herself. But despite Holly’s outer beauty, she doesn’t seem like a very nice person. At one of her parties, she spreads rumors of her friend Mag (Kate Cullen Roberts, miscast) having a sexually transmitted disease, presumably to keep the men in the room from paying attention to her friend, and leaves the friend lying on the floor in a drunken stupor. But the next day she refers to woman as “her dearest friend in the whole world.” She is called a whore by one of her neighbors (Suzanne Bertish) who also warns Fred against becoming too close with Holly and her low self-esteem is apparent, as she tells Fred, “Anyone who gives you confidence – you love them a lot.”
Holly is hardly a feminist ideal in terms of how she treats other people, but her stubborn desire to stick it out on her own – even if she breaks the law in the process – is courageous.
While Breakfast at Tiffany’s does inspire some academic reflection, the show lacks substantially in entertainment. The biggest laugh of the evening was inspired by a hostile query from Fred’s boss, asking, “Why are you hostile to the semicolon?” But despite the sweeping scenes of idyllic, panoramic, black and white New York streets and skies, the romance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is severely lacking. As Fred swept Holly into his arms at the Brooklyn Bridge, the woman sitting next to me in the audience stifled a big yawn. I shared her sentiment.