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Theatre in Review: BrandoCapote (The Tank)

Lynn R. Guerra, Jennifer McClinton. Photo: Miguel Aviles.

It was the journalistic whack job of the decade: Truman Capote, on assignment for The New Yorker, bearded Marlon Brando, that lion of Hollywood, in the den of his hotel in Osaka, Japan, where he was filming the 1957 drama Sayonara. Armed with a bottle of vodka and his lethally disarming manner, Capote got his subject to talk -- and talk and talk and talk. The resulting piece, "The Duke in His Domain," was a sensation, and for good reason: In it, Brando bares his distaste for his current project and his lack of trust in the director, Joshua Logan. He disowns acting as a profession, confesses his inability to love, and portrays his method of making friends as something between a seduction and a big-game hunt. And, seemingly without prompting, he reveals the details of his anguished childhood, presided over by his frustrated mother and critical, withholding father, both of them alcoholics. In the 1950s, stars never, ever offered such revelations, not even to the sob sisters at Modern Screen or Photoplay, let alone William Shawn's tasteful literary citadel.

A conspiracy theory exists, suggesting that, in actuality, Brando was playing Capote; the idea, I guess, is that, looking to roll out a new image for himself, he cast off Stanley Kowalski's form-fitting T-shirt to don the mourning suit of a tortured, sensitive soul. But the fact remains that Brando moved heaven and earth to get the story killed, and, after its publication, complained loudly and lustily about it. For Capote, it was only a warm-up exercise for In Cold Blood, the "non-fiction novel" about a Kansas murder case that made him, arguably, the greatest literary celebrity of the day. The book's success depended entirely on his ability to befriend, and extract intimate details from, his subjects, the murderers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.

Read today, "The Duke in His Domain" remains a stunner, although Capote's idea of local color -- "The door was opened by another doll-delicate Miyako maid, who at once succumbed to her own fit of quaint hysteria" -- induces more than a few cringes. Still, Brando was probably the biggest movie star in the world, and he let down his guard in a way that would be impossible today, when press reps ride herd on interviews, cracking the whip to ensure that their clients stick to happy talk. A fascinating piece by Douglas McCollam in the Columbia Journalism Review, "In Cold Type," fills in the details surrounding the men's meeting -- my favorite involves Josh Logan, who, on seeing the tiny Capote in the hotel lobby, picked him up and deposited him outside the front door -- while making the point that Brando and Capote were, oddly, mirror images of each other.

As indeed they were: Both were outsiders, harmed by drunken, unloving parents and ostracized when young for being arty and/or too effeminate. Both were 32 at the time of the Sayonara shoot, and each enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame that ended in a terrible crash-landing: Following the headline-grabbing success of his Black and White Ball -- the social event of the 1960s -- Capote, spiritually undone by In Cold Blood, descended into a swamp of pills and booze, alienating his friends and chasing after married heterosexual men. Brando's diva behavior and declining box office figures found him imprisoned in one celluloid misfire after another; he managed to keep his career alive with occasional successes like The Godfather, but his performances often made clear his distaste for the project at hand. Morbidly obese and a semi-recluse, he was haunted in his final years by his son's conviction for murder and his daughter's suicide. Euripides got it wrong: Those whom the gods would destroy they first make celebrities.

If you know anything about either of the title figures and/or if you have read "The Duke in His Domain," which is available on the Internet, certain passages of BrandoCapote will captivate you. If you're more of a tabula rasa regarding these two men, God help you, because Sara Farrington's script takes a Cubist approach, slicing and dicing bits of the interview and mixing them up with morsels of data from both men's careers. Reid Farrington's staging transforms the event into a kind of Noh ceremony, in which the seven-member cast, clad in Japanese robes, constantly unroll lengthy obis that span the stage, accompanied by sound and video effects. (Mayo Miwa served as Noh consultant.) Other activities are repeated: Phones are answered, the sound of a soundtrack blip signals another rewind of the action, and parasols are opened just in time to serve as projection surfaces for brief bits from Brando's films.

Reid Farrington who also designed the video, has drawn on a range of Brando's work, from masterpieces like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront to the hootily awful Désirée (in which the actor plays a mumbling Napoleon) and The Island of Dr. Moreau, which was laughed off the screen in 1996. Marcelo Añez's elaborately layered sound design includes much of the text in voiceover, along with film soundtracks. (Either he has gotten his hands on an interview with Capote or one of the cast members is a master impersonator.) Andre Joyner's costumes are gorgeously detailed examples of traditional Japanese finery, and Laura Mroczkowski's lighting constantly reshapes the space, working deftly with the projections. Laura K. Nicoll's effective choreography includes such touches as the group shudder that, often accompanied by the words "Let's get back to the interview," indicates another rip in the play's time fabric.

The precision of the piece is stunning, but its ideas are reductive and repetitive. The script expands the "Duke in His Domain" interview, adding dialogue for Capote and widening its viewpoint to take in events that unfolded decades later; still, BrandoCapote circles endlessly around the idea of the men as identically wounded souls, which, as indicated above, is true enough, as far as it goes. But by emphasizing their victimization, the script misses so much more that is really interesting about them, both their astonishing achievements and their spectacular falls from grace. Brando and Capote burned brightly, even when they were falling apart; their awful childhoods are the least of it. The difficulty with BrandoCapote is that it may be too obscure for the uninitiated and too banal for the well-informed.

The Farringtons have previously excavated film history to engaging effect. Reid Farrington's version of A Christmas Carol delighted with its encyclopedic knowledge of virtually every film adaptation of the Dickens classic, from the early silent era to the Mr. Magoo cartoon musical (a boomer touchstone) and the many gimmicky television film versions. CasablancaBox, created by them both, was sometimes a little too frenetic, but it packed an enormous amount of drama and fun facts about the fraught shoot of a vintage Hollywood classic. In terms of staging, BrandoCapote may be their most accomplished piece - it is a technical marvel, as perfectly timed as a Swiss watch -- but in terms of entertainment and enlightenment, it doesn't even come close to reading "The Duke in His Domain." --David Barbour


(13 November 2019)

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