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First Nighter: Emilia Clarke Does Holly Golightly in Stage Breakfast at Tiffany's

03/20/2013 08:51 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2013

The rumor goes that for his Breakfast at Tiffany's novella, Truman Capote based Holly Golightly on Dovima, the model most famous for posing in front of an elephant for Richard Avedon's iconic fashion photograph. Or sometimes the rumor has it that Capote was thinking of Dorian Leigh, another elegant 1950s mannequin, whose sister was the equally famous Suzy Parker. Or perhaps Capote -- the New York City got-himself-around wunderkind from the South -- had both Dovima and Leigh in mind.

The assumption was that the model (in two senses of the word) he was putting into print was intentionally meant to represent one of those tall, chisel-featured, outwardly haughty women whom Vogue and Harper's Bazaar favored then for their slick pages -- one of those striking females for whom Audrey Hepburn could easily pass when she starred so memorably in the 1961 film.

And even if Hepburn wasn't exactly the Holly that Capote created in every particular, she was so effective that images of her in black Givenchy sheath and opera gloves are on sale this very minute at carts all over Times Square.

In the new production of Capote's adored work at the Cort, however, Emilia Clarke -- whom television audience know as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones (shortly due back on HBO for a third season) -- doesn't quite fit the physical profile. She's no long and skinny drink of water, but she's undeniably darkly beautiful. Speaking with a plummy accent under David Bryan Brown's Veronica-Lake-style wig, she does a more than acceptable job living up to Holly's determined devil-may-care manner.

The Holly that Capote was memorializing dons sophistication as if slipping into a tight-fitting frock. More than somewhat like the Sally Bowles about whom Christopher Isherwood reminisced in his Goodbye to Berlin stories, Holly is an uncertain young woman who wants to convince the men in her wake that she's far more knowing than she is -- even as she unwittingly plays go-between for an upstate prisoner and his cronies.

All the while working her big-city impersonation, she's hiding her past as Lula Mae Barnes, the former teenage wife of a well-meaning, backwoods father to several young 'uns, Doc Barnes. More touchingly yet, Holly's trying to repress a thirst for moving on that never gets quenched.

Holly's is a story Capote apparently witnessed at such close quarters that he couldn't resist inserting himself as enthralled narrator. He's the fellow whom Holly insists on calling by her unseen brother's name, Fred (Cory Michael Smith). So the tale Capote tells is one of superficial cosmopolitan glamour and the unfulfilled longing for genuine glamour underlying it.

As Sean Mathias stages the piece, both Clarke as Holly and Smith as Fred understand and convey the clash between what's real and what's all too sadly faked. Just about everyone connected with the undertaking gets Capote's lyrically melancholy drift -- all of them sticking much more closely to Capote's plot line than, for instance, film director Blake Edwards and scenarist George Axelrod did in the Hepburn version. (Never mind the Edward Albee-scripted musicalization.)

This adaptation around, Richard Greenberg feels none of the needs to change the homosexual Fred into a love interest for Holly. He refuses to supply an older woman who's keeping that romantic heterosexual fellow. He won't provide a Tinseltown ending. Greenberg even refers to fiction-writing Fred as having posed for a provocative book-jacket portrait -- a reference to the supine pose the 23-year-old Capote struck for Harold Halma's attention-getting Other Voices, Other Rooms photograph.

Designer Derek McLane is so attuned with what's needed that his set for Holly's flat contains the bed on and around which she does most of her entertaining, but it also features several stacked valises--the prized possessions, of course, of someone prepared to pick up and go on a moment's whim. Those suitcases alone are frequent reminders of Holly's terminally unsettled nature.

The other prominent set is the bar to which this erstwhile Fred has returned in 1957 to recall his bittersweet escapades in 1943 and the subsequent World War II years when asthma kept him in Manhattan and hoping to launch a writing career. There, with a neon Stroh's beer sign lighting the otherwise dim surroundings, he compulsively trades Holly recollections with also smitten barkeep Joe Bell (George Wendt).

There's where the past invades the present, and where return various baddies and goodies with whom Holly associated while pretending nothing mattered a fig to her. Characters like upstairs neighbor and fashion photographer I. Y. Yunioshi (James Yaegashi) and nosybody Madame Spanella (Suzanne Bertish) crowd around.

By the way, some of the production's preopening publicity centered on the difficulty of casting the role of the cat Holly never gets to naming. It looks as if the difficulties haven't been entirely overcome, since the cat now appearing has been reduced to a walk-on -- actually, more like a quick walk-off.

Also by the way, director Mathias has already had a go at Capote's minor classic. Though he leaves the information out of his Playbill bio, he presented a different Breakfast at Tiffany's adaptation when he was artistic director of London's Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2009-10. It's a pleasure to report that this endeavor is a vast improvement on that one.

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