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Legit Review: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Emilia Clarke's calculating Golightly won't make Broadway audiences forget Audrey

It’s like trying to ignore the elephant in the room, watching Richard Greenberg’s stage adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and trying not to think about Audrey Hepburn’s matchless performance in the 1961 Blake Edwards movie. The scribe and helmer Sean Mathias have walked the story back to its original World War II time frame, restored the pitiless ending and the sexuality of the gay narrator, and made Holly’s source of income less ambiguous. Good for them. But having restored Holly’s world, the creatives have neglected to put Holly in it.

Hepburn would have been entirely out of her element in this darker, drearier, more depressing wartime city where all the young men are fighting abroad and the streets belong to old men, damaged men, foreign men, and men with “old money and sour breath.”

As fabricated by set designer Derek McLane, the Manhattan of this era is exciting and forbidding, a metropolis of cramped apartments, looming skyscrapers (Wendall K. Harrington did the projections), cacophonous street sounds (supplied by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen), and edge-of-night lighting effects (designed by Peter Kaczorowski). Even the period costumes by Colleen Atwood tend to muted shades of gray.

This is the cheerless world that Holly Golightly lights up with her evanescent personality. As played by Emilia Clarke, the mother of dragons in “Game of Thrones,” this party girl is neither a sophisticated fashion plate nor a fragile wild child. She’s a clever girl who knows the market value of her mercurial charms and is too smart to sell herself cheap. (“I’m cash only” captures her cheerful attitude.)

But while Clarke is physically seductive, her mannered Holly is more calculating than charismatic. Which makes it tough for all the men who are infatuated with her to express their adoration with conviction.

Cory Michael Smith, who showed how sensitive he could be as the androgynous love object in “Cock,” proves just as engaging here as the neighbor Holly calls “Fred.” Alone among the eccentric tenants of their East Side brownstone, this precious Southern boy (a Capote alter ego) who writes precious Southern prose can see through Holly’s captivating gaiety and recognize another social outcast. Just as she can look past his faux innocence and spot another hustler.

The play is constructed like a Tennessee Williams memory play, with a contemporary (1957) narrative wrapped around Fred’s dreamy memories of the time (1943-44) when he and Holly were neighbors and friends. (For no good reason, except perhaps desperation, helmer Mathias has seen fit to dramatize their closeness with a nude scene.)

Mathias, who directed a previous adaptation of the play (by scribe Samuel Adamson) at the Royal Haymarket in 2009, holds his ground in the realistic 1950s scenes set in Joe’s Bar, a favorite haunt of Holly’s old party crowd. (The only time “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has been previously attempted on Broadway was in a 1966 musical version that played just four perfs and never even made it to opening.) George Wendt cuts through the nostalgia with a solid and rather touching portrayal of bar owner Joe Bell, who loved Holly in his own way.

Murphy Guyer delivers the same authenticity in the memory scenes, turning in strong, honest work as Doc, a figure from Holly’s past life in Tulip, Texas.  “This here’s no humorous matter,” he says, which makes his character a notable exception among the broader-and-louder-than-life caricatures who inhabit the dreamlike world of Fred’s memory.

John Rothman, Lee Wilkof, and other veteran character actors come to no good as the parade of friends, admirers and sugar daddies who show up for the louche parties  Holly throws for “tout le monde” in her tiny apartment.

Precious little imagination and less thought have gone into these awkwardly penned and monotonously staged party scenes, which exist only in Fred’s memory. Mathias may have been going for a surreal vibe, but clunky setpieces lumbering on and off for scene changes put the kibosh on that idea.

And then, of course, there’s still that elephant in the room.

(Cort Theater; 1079 seats; $132 top)

A Colin Ingram & Donovan Mannato, Geoffrey Thomas, and Dominic Ianno presentation, in association with Robert L. Hutt, May Chu, and Ilene Starger, of a play in two acts by Richard Greenberg, adapted from the novel by Truman Capote. Directed by Sean Mathias.

Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Colleen Atwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; projections, Wendall K. Harrington; original music & sound, Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; hairstyling, David Brian Brown; makeup, J. Roy Helland; production stage manager, J. Philip Bassett. Opened March 20, 2013. Reviewed March 15. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

With: Cory Michael Smith, George Wendt, James Yaegashi, Suzanne Bertish, Emilia Clarke, John Rothman, Lee Wilkof, Tony Torn, Kate Cullen Roberts, Murphy Guyer,  Eddie Korbich, Elisabeth Anthony Gray, Pedro Carmo, Danny Binstock, Paolo Montalban.

Legit Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's

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