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Truman Capote never appears as a character in Bal Masque—his name doesn’t come up, in fact, until well into the second section of Richard Greenberg’s quietly seductive triptych, and even the first allusion to him (something to do with “short men who whinny”) comes roughly a quarter-hour down the conversational trail that meanders with such deceptive calm through most of the first act. But the notion of Capote shadows the play like some malignant spirit, and so sharp is the tang of the playwright’s loathing for his unseen main character that you have to wonder: How long has Greenberg been nursing this crush?
Because make no mistake, it’s a love-hate thing. Three couples spend a couple of hours putting a coda on an opera of an evening—it’s the aftermath of Capote’s notorious Black and White Ball, and the various characters in Bal Masque have all been to the Plaza Hotel, one way or another—and the excitement and the exhaustion and the shame that attends their various wrappings-up are nothing if not acknowledgments that, like it or not, they’re each of them in thrall to him. They are all, in their way, the sort of grotesques Capote adored: dazzling, some of them, others quietly broken under a perfect surface, still others desperate enough that you can see the awfulness coming and wait, licking your chops, for Greenberg to serve it up. (And in that Capote-ish move, Greenberg makes little Capotes of us all.)
It starts slow, this play, in the burnished, low-key world-premiere production John Vreeke has directed for Theater J, and that makes a kind of sense once Greenberg drops the clues that tell you exactly how Greer (Brigid Cleary) and her husband, Trey (Jeff Allin), have spent their evening. Dressed to the nines, masks still (significantly) on, they sit nattering about the cigarettes they’re out of and the unopenable door behind which an emergency stash might be found. And don’t think closed doors aren’t a hint about where these two find themselves: Greer has looked to Capote for the titillating counterpoint he plays against “the elevator music of existence,” as she puts it in one of those arias Greenberg likes to give characters now and again (to his credit, he makes a joke of it here), but recently she’s not been getting invited to the recitals. She’s a princess cut off from her court jester, and somehow, once Bal Masque lets its party face slip to show the humanity behind its characters’ pretty surfaces, Greenberg and Cleary and Allin turn out to be gifted enough to make you understand how that could be devastating.
Vreeke keeps the performances in that first long stretch so contained, so controlled, that you almost don’t see how eloquent they are. Then: a small fidget with the right hand, which draws the audience’s eye, which makes it necessary that that hand will be touched—and so it is, and there is a moment of immense tenderness that explains all the anger to come. It’s lovely. Then the anger comes, and sadness on its heels.
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And then it’s on to another expensive Manhattan apartment (the handsome sets and lighting are by Daniel Conway), the domain of a delicious creature who all but flaunts the speech impediment that turns her Rs into Ws, as if to say that on such a gem even a flaw is just another brilliant facet. She is Marietta (an enchanting Maia DeSanti), and she is, it will shortly become clear, Capote’s new favorite, his new “head swan,” the new provider of the gossip that intoxicates him so—and she’s just narcissist enough, poor dear, to be persuaded that she won’t one day be a castoff like Greer. (“Poow Gweew,” says our exquisite, with a giggle so charming you don’t for an instant mind the knife: “She’s an old swan. She’s molting.”)
With the chair and the whip of potential patronage, naughty Marietta puts an impoverished Virginia gentleman of an artist (Cameron McNary) through a series of archly amusing hoops involving the taking off of shoes and the putting on of an unfortunate peignoir, while across town her henpecked Midwesterner husband, Owen (a nicely disconcerted Todd Scofield), does the gentlemanly thing and escorts the artist’s exhausted wife home. And in a sequence of overlapping scenes that moves a whit less fluidly than it might, both pairs approach the precipice of a secret that would, should Marietta tease it out of her new protégé, be enough to keep Capote in shrieks for a week. But she misplays her hand (DeSanti and McNary play the misplaying hilariously), and it falls to Colleen Delany’s tortured Joanna to confess the secret to Owen—a good guy who, in a wrenching moment, can’t deliver on the promise of understanding that leads Joanna to confide in him. The play leaves her isolated, on the outside, a grotesque without the glamour of being known as a grotesque among those who’d turn her into a figure of fascination; it’s a measure of Greenberg’s gifts that you don’t know whether to mourn that or heave a sigh of relief for the poor woman.
Finally, it’s on to a park bench, where two of the men run into each other, nursing their uncertainties and their inadequacies—“I’m told I vanish in a mixed light,” one says as the sun threatens to come up, rehashing a casual, intimate cruelty from an earlier conversation—and as one of them nears an emotional breaking point, the other, in what’s probably the evening’s only real act of charity, declines to pass on a bit of meanness that’s been circulating since Capote engineered it at the beginning of the evening. And in that declining, he creates what might be a glimmer of possibility, a way forward for both men. Or perhaps it’s a disastrous move—Greenberg refuses to say, even to hint, what the morning after his monsters’ ball may look like.
And since all the play’s quiet seductions are given scope to whisper and promise, you go home wondering how it is you’ve come to care for these socialites, these grotesques—these people.
The thing Lynn Sterling gets very, very right is the tone: That strange coolness, that air that is somehow a distanced intimacy, that unmistakable Billie Holidayness, it’s there, and it’s pretty wonderful. That rightness, unfortunately, is missing in the moments between the songs in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill—and it’s in those moments that the show wants to break your heart.
On a stage configured to look like the undistinguished Philadelphia club Holiday doesn’t want to be playing, with patrons sprinkled at cocktail tables for an added bit of verisimilitude, Sterling croons her way through a dozen or so of the songs you’d expect in a Holiday biography: “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” and suchlike. In between, what would ordinarily be patter turns out, in the conceit of playwright Lanie Robertson, to be a bit of substance-fueled soul-baring. As the night gets longer and Holiday’s mood gets darker, the stories come snarling out: the bad marriage, the disapproving mother, the casual, brutal racism that dominated when she was making her name. The most gripping of these tales, in Kenneth Lee Roberson’s unfussy Arena Stage production, is the one that finds Holiday laughing, not without a hint of bitterness, at the memory of a hostess who wouldn’t let her use the restroom at a whites-only restaurant in Alabama—and at the singular revenge Holiday took, a revenge that must have been as humiliating as it was satisfying.
Sterling disappears into that moment, and the power of what happens when she does only points up the unsatisfyingly surface quality that marks her performance elsewhere. But William Foster McDaniel’s trio plays hot and cool, and Michael Gilliam knows how to make them shine and how to make them vanish into the blackness behind a spotlit vision of grief. And there’s that voice—intimate, distanced, and haunting as ever, showing you its pain and daring you to feel pity.CP