There was a time, in the nineteen sixties, where it seemed we had come to the end of the world. The muscular optimism of the Kennedy years had closed, literally, with a bang. Hemmingway, who represented all that was swagger in the literary arts, had come to a similar end a few years earlier. Justice and international liberty, seemingly at hand through legislation and a show of force in the Gulf of Tonkin, was proving to be harder and more elusive. Our assumptions had been critically flawed. The days brought humility, and for some, despair.
In retrospect, it should not be surprising that a human vampire emerged as a hero in those difficult days. Truman Capote, a fat, unsocialized alcoholic with a gift for the telling phrase and a genius for self-promotion served the bill nicely. His breakout accomplishment was a “nonfiction novel”, In Cold Blood, about the massacre of the Clutter family in Kansas. By calling his work nonfiction, he gave himself license to spread the lives of these unfortunate people and their killers before the general public. By calling it a novel, he avoided the requirement that it be true.
Literary fame was insufficient for Capote; he required social renown as well. Towards that end, he staged an enormously publicized social event, the “Black and White Ball”, whose cachet he cleverly enhanced by maintaining an ostentatious, but secret, guest list, to which he constantly added and subtracted.
In retrospect, it all seems as foolish and faddish as hula hoops, but it was deadly serious at the time. Mystifyingly, Capote had acquired a reputation as an artistic as well as social arbiter, and to be invited to the Black and White Ball could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to an aspiring artist. For the New York Social Set, an invitation could assure recognition and reputation for a decade; exclusion meant a death spiral of B-list parties which would eventually end up with the defunct socialite spending her evenings in front of the television, watching Matlock reruns.
It is this ball – the Bal Masque of the title – which forms the backdrop for Richard Greenberg’s incandescent play, receiving its world premier at Theater J through May 11. The astoundingly prolific Greenberg, who has had four world premiers this year and whose Three Days of Rain, which stars Julia Roberts, is playing to packed preview houses on Broadway, here identifies with laserlike precision a society whose moral center has drained away, and is thus reduced to pandering and sycophancy.
Greenberg’s dialogue sings and sizzles, and director John Vreeke has assembled a high-octane cast which is the equal to it. Greer (Brigid Cleary) is a onetime “swan” of the master – a sort of deputy Capote who gathers the gossip he loves and feeds off of in return for outrageous compliments (Capote loved to tell people they were the models for the characters in his novels) and ersatz approval. She has committed the sin of growing older, however, and she and her bewildered husband Trey (Jeff Allin) are thus forced to orbit the party like human Plutos, glimpsing the Great Man only occasionally. As the play opens, they nurse their wounds over brandy and coffee, alternately cursing Capote and whining because they have no cigarettes. Greer, cut off from Capote’s wellspring of malice, sprays a fine mist of acid at Trey, making insinuations about his intelligence, his imagination, and his sexuality. Trey strikes back as best he can.
Greer eventually sends Trey out to steal cigarettes from the maid, and once he is gone, launches into a monologue of heartrending pathos. Greer’s cry of separation from Capote sounds like the wail of a lost soul, and when she describes the pathetic emptiness of her life before she joined his coterie she resembles nothing so much as a reformed sinner who has found, and now lost, her Redeemer.
The religious undertones continue in the Second Act, where Marietta (Maia DeSanti), Capote’s self-proclaimed “head swan”, dismisses her time before Capote as “B.C.” Marietta sets out grimly to seduce Owen (Cameron McNary), a grade-Z artist and a preposterous fraud. Marietta is an astonishing creation, gifted with a truly staggering speech impediment which makes her sound like Catherine Deneuve channeling Elmer Fudd. Speech impediments, of course, aren’t funny but when one is superimposed on a personality as supernally evil as Marietta’s, the effect is breathtaking. “You don’t have a home until dawn,” Marietta barks at her husband Russell (Todd Scofield), a knowing cuckold. The line is heartbreaking, but hearing it delivered in DeSanti’s lisping, cartoony voice is surreal.
Russell is cuckolded, of course, not with the ridiculous Owen but with Capote himself. Though Marietta is willing to have sex as a matter of course, her real object is to obtain some secret of Owen’s, some tidbit of gossip that will briefly amuse the Great Man. When it finally comes – not from Owen but from his frightened wife (Colleen Delany) it is so shocking that I could literally hear the breath being sucked from the audience.
Endings are hard, and it is a measure of the high quality of this piece that the brief coda that concludes the play fails to fully satisfy. Graceful and knowing, it nonetheless is a shade too facile, and suggests a resolution that the rest of the play failed to prepare us to understand. But – My God! What a piece of work this play is!
Indeed, a description of the play does not do justice to how funny it is. The wit is so subtle, so complex and dry, that it is hard not to be flattered to hear it. Time and again, Theater J’s Goldman Theater roared with laughter – five or ten seconds after the clever line was delivered.
The play’s success is due in large part to Vreeke’s rapid-fire, spot-on direction and to marvelous performances, particularly by Cleary, Allin and DeSanti. Indeed, the dialogue-heavy first Act, delivered almost exclusively by a man and a woman sitting in chairs facing the audience, could have been deadly in the hands of lesser actors. Vreeke showed that he has the precision to handle Greenberg’s demanding requirements. He frequently has his actors come in on top of each other; and at other times has them stare at each other in silence, and never, never is there a false moment.
That Theater J is the site of a world premier of a terrific play by a significant and well-recognized playwright is a tribute to the standing that this sturdy, mid-size company has achieved. It is also a tribute to Washington theater generally. Theater J, one of the area’s most cerebral theaters, offers a series of lectures and discussions about the play. Details are available on their website, www.theaterj.org.
Bal Masque plays at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the DC Jewish Community Center, 1520 16th Street NW Tuesdays through Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through May 11. Evening shows at 7.30 except for Saturdays, which are at 8; Sunday matinees at 3.30. There will be no show on Wednesday, April 12, Thursday, April 13, or Wednesday, April 19. Tickets $15-$40. Call 800.494.TIXS or access www.boxofficetickets.com for tickets.