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An unfulfilling 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by ART of WNY

When a show doesn’t work, you can usually start to understand why by looking at its three support beams: the text, the actors and the director. Chances are, one of those beams is looser than the others; sometimes more than one needs support. It’s a good reminder this is a collaborative art, with one would hope many checkstops on the way to opening night.

Take the recent performance I saw of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at the American Repertory Theater of WNY, directed by Matthew LaChiusa.

I left with lots of questions, none of which are rhetorical, and all of which have answers.

I left the theater exhausted by LaChiusa’s boxy set design, sprawled out on two levels, with actors hauling up and down stairs, hustling behind unnecessary walls, out of range of the audience’s sightlines. My attention often escaped to a less literal, more visionary approach built upon a few stylish statements in set decor and costuming, floating on an otherwise black set. This is a memory play, after all. Where is the interpretation?

I left confused by Richard Greenberg’s stage adaptation, which makes a point of reminding us this is a reworking of Capote’s novella, and not the famous film version that made an icon out of Audrey Hepburn, despite clinging desperately to its trademarks — from Holly Golightly’s quizzical self-serenade on a lonesome balcony to Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” to the production’s shticky use of a Tiffany-like blue in costuming and set dressing. These may feel clever, but they’re only a reminder this 2016 adaptation was an attempt to build on an already confident franchise. Why do we need a play of this?

I left disappointed our two leading characters never really connect the way they should, for LaChiusa not tuning actors Candice Kogut and Ryan Kaminski to the same note, or even harmony.

Each has their strengths, but they are playing in two different versions of the story: Kogut is in a soap opera, while Kaminski is in a Neil Simon comedy. Where did this unravel?

American Repertory Theatre of WNY presents Ryan Kaminski and Candice Kogut in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." (Photo credit: Katherine Butler)

I left angry that in attempting to circumvent race-appropriate casting of landlord Yunioshi, a Japanese man, by silhouetting Dewel Perez behind a screen, they still employed an affected, caricatured voice — instead of casting a Japanese or Asian actor. This no doubt was in response to critics’ long-standing backlash over Mickey Rooney’s film performance in yellowface. Why doesn’t this response go far enough?

I left angriest for a choice I can’t imagine defending in 2019, the production’s use of what I can only assume were real cigarettes in two separate scenes, without warning. This is a huge no-no in New York State and in theaters around the country and Europe. If these were stage props or even an herbal variety allowed by state law, they sure lit, puffed and smelled like tobacco. Why was this choice made?

(LaChiusa, in an email to an editor, said an unlit cigarette and cigar are onstage, and the cigarettes that are lit are herbal, non-tobacco cigarettes. He said New York State law is followed and a fire extinguisher and bucket of water are in the areas where smoking occurs.)

These are examples of egregious error, all avoidable with more careful thinking and editing. They are not the results of failed risk. These aren’t issues of taste; I can work around taste. It’s that these decisions signal a collective disregard for our time, our patience, our imagination, and even our safety.

Theater review

“Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

1 star (out of 4)

Presented by American Repertory Theater of WNY through Feb. 16 at 545 Elmwood Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 general, $10 students and industry. Visit artofwny.org or call 983-4345.

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Note: A previous version of this review did not include director Matthew LaChiusa's email responses to questions about the use of cigarettes in the production.

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