Ye Olde Family Scrapbook can be a blessing or a bane at this time of year—the repository of precious memories can also inspire remembered preciousness. Its contents aren’t the problem; they’re essentially neutral. But when the album is hauled out by someone who gets a case of the warm fuzzies at the merest whiff of fruitcake, it can prompt storytelling saccharine enough to drive everyone from the room.
That’s essentially what happens when the Olney Theater peeks into Truman Capote’s scrapbook in Holiday Memories. Adapted by Russell Vandenbroucke from two of the late author’s best-known, frankly autobiographical short stories—“The Thanksgiving Visitor” and “A Christmas Memory”—the show makes for one verrrrry sappy theatrical evening. Oddly so, since the stories work simply and directly on the page.
They involve the holiday preparations of young Buddy (Capote’s childhood nickname) and his childlike, 60-year-old cousin, Miss Sook, who became his best friend after his parents left him with relatives at a tender age. Each tale wraps a neat life-lesson into its festive saga. In the first, Miss Sook invites the school bully to join the family for Thanksgiving dinner so that Buddy can confront his fears. In the second, Buddy and Sook bake holiday fruitcakes and realize that love is the ingredient that matters most.
The stage versions employ a pair of narrators—the grown-up Truman (Alan Wade), looking back on events through a nostalgic haze, and 7-year-old Buddy (adult actor Thomas Richter), who interacts with other characters onstage but doesn’t always grasp the import of what’s happening around him. The difference in their outlooks lets Vandenbroucke leave Capote’s prose mostly intact: The descriptive passages and psychological insights are given to the adult Truman, and the dialogue to the kid. In theory, that’s all to the good, since jettisoning the original language would have crippled the stories. Much of their appeal lies in Capote’s evocative, just-this-side-of-purple prose, in which bootleg-liquor sellers become giants, and babbling brooks are churned into froths by “a disturbed armada of speckled trout.” But in practice, it raises the question of why such essentially descriptive, barely narrative tales are being dramatized at all.
Director Jim Petosa doesn’t provide any answers in his staging, which is mostly static and unremarkable. Though he’s generally expert at giving schmaltzy material an unsentimental edge—witness his terrific The Miracle Worker last year—Petosa seems defeated here by writing that doesn’t inspire much visual variety. James Kronzer’s leaf-strewn farmhouse, with its trees growing out of wallboards, is dappled in golds and ochres by lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner, who also projects windows, clouds, stars, and Christmas-tree lights when required. But apart from the halfhearted use of a scrim (behind which occasional sequences are silhouetted) and some awkward mime, the show isn’t very theatrical. In fact, when it tries to be, it only mucks things up by waffling stylistically. During one scene, in which a woman pretends to play an onstage piano she is not facing while an adult actor who’s been speaking in his gruff natural voice turns away from the audience so his singing can be piped in by an 11-year-old, it’s hard to imagine what was intended. The effect is merely amateurish.
Except for Pamela Lewis—whose addled Miss Sook is charming even when required to say things like “there is only one unpardonable sin: deliberate cruelty; all others can be forgiven”—the cast mostly flails. Watching them struggle to match movement and gesture to Capote’s literary prose, I kept wondering, “What are they doing?” “Why are they working so hard?” And, mostly, “Why am I not at home, reading this?”
Iwas at home when I viewed David Cale’s hypnotically affecting one-man, multiple-character show, Somebody Else’s House, which will be at Studio Theater only through next Sunday. (The opening pressed Washington City Paper deadlines well past breaking point, so I’ve had to rely on a murky videotape of a performance Cale recently gave in Minnesota.) Even with his features blurry and indistinct, the man who brought Studio audiences The Redthroats and Smooch Music (in ’87 and ’89) is as astonishing as ever. Count him among the most accomplished of that chameleonic breed known as performance artists, who change their stripes the way most of us change clothes. One moment he’s a conflicted Southern child identifying with a pet duck that thinks it’s a chicken, the next he’s a rasping harridan, growling in a voice born of cigarettes and whiskey that she’s a man trapped in a woman’s body.
The duality of those characters (the duck included) is very much the point of Somebody Else’s House, an evening that celebrates eccentricity with gusto. Cale’s world is peopled by folks who have tried to fit in but are in the process of realizing—sometimes with a sigh, but more often with a thrill—that their lives won’t ever conform to societal norms. Cale takes the evening’s title from the story of a closeted gay man who’s liberated by a fling with a comfortably “out” boyfriend. Exhilarated after being kissed in public, this timid soul realizes with a shock how constrained his life has always been. “I live in the world like it was somebody else’s house,” he says.
Other characters range from mirror-gazing egotists (“I have the kind of ass that makes people want to turn into chairs”) to delicate creatures so withdrawn they’ve retreated entirely into fantasy. One inward-looking man claims to have knitted a sweater from his lover’s eyelashes, a flight of fancy that is accompanied by several flights of imagery as odd as they are poetic. Cale is one of the most peculiarly evocative writers currently working in the theater. At times sensual, other times playful, his prose wanders all over the stylistic block. A passage that starts out absolutely down-to-earth and redolent of normal speech can suddenly erupt into something like “my mother’s name was paranoia; my father’s was panic; I got sexuality at the pound.”
By comparison, his delivery is more consistent; sentences continually bubble from him in urgent spurts. Sometimes he rocks rhythmically forward into lines, as if pushing them out into the auditorium. Other times, they seem to escape against his will as he rocks back on his heels. And always, his gaze—beseeching and liquid, like that of the starving children who stare from charity posters—is captivating. When one of the several women he plays describes the start of an affair with poet Leonard Cohen by saying, “Our eyes locked like handcuffs,” you know just what she means.
Romance—whether hetero-, homo-, or ambisexual—plays just as large a part in these proceedings as it did in Cale’s previous shows. But there’s nothing squishy or sentimental about the approach he takes. Probably the most haunting of his stories concerns Lillian, a settled, faithful wife whose husband heads out for several months on an oil rig with a parting comment about how he couldn’t live with the knowledge that another man had been “inside” her. Almost before he’s out of sight, Lillian has taken to bed a lad 15 years her junior, savoring the guilt of the moment as if it were the whole reason for infidelity. The experience, which she doesn’t find satisfying in any conventional sense, leaves her meditative but not melancholy. She has watched herself throughout as a dispassionate outsider might—analyzing motives, evaluating responses, and in the process acknowledging that she’s turned an emotional corner. There’s uplift in that, of a sort that springs from the bedrock humanity Cale finds in his characters.