Bal Masque

Directed by John Vreeke

Brigid Cleary and Jeff Allin

'Bal Masque' Curdles The Creme de la Creme

At Theater J, a New Take on the Very Rich

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2006; Page C01

As a social event, it was nonpareil. As the subject of a play, it's not quite so dazzling a bauble. Still, in "Bal Masque," playwright Richard Greenberg manages to add amusing colors to his comic reconstruction of the hours after Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, the celebrated fete to end all fetes.

The play, receiving its world premiere at Theater J, allows six strong actors the opportunity to romp in the manicured gardens of Greenberg's lush locutions. It has been staged with agility by John Vreeke, who sets a playful tone for his skilled performers. All in all, though, black and white comes out a little gray. Alternating between satire and pathos, the play never settles on a particularly urgent arc, and most of Greenberg's characters remain, as a result, rather sketchy. The curiosities about them only intermittently pique ours.

Maia DeSanti and Cameron McNary in Richard Greenberg's witty, pitying look at the lives of the status-conscious rich. (By Stan Barouh -- Theater J)

With his debut Broadway play "Eastern Standard" in 1989, Greenberg was dubbed a wunderkind; lately, the wunder has been his productivity. "Bal Masque" is one of three new works the 48-year-old playwright is unveiling this season, and on top of these, Julia Roberts is opening on Broadway next week in a revival of his 1997 drama "Three Days of Rain." Washington audiences, meanwhile, got a taste last summer of Greenberg at maximum throttle with Studio Theatre's mounting of "Take Me Out," his lyrical oath of allegiance to baseball.

Theater J deserves a hand just for shepherding this original play to the stage. Its artistic director, Ari Roth, is confidently building the company's reputation as a haven for first looks. And even if "Bal Masque" is a less elegant entertainment than "Take Me Out," the piece is still flavored with Greenberg's wit. Its inspiration is the legendary Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, thrown in the fall of 1966 in honor of Katharine Graham. To have received a coveted invitation, in those days when Capote reigned as a fey object of glibness and an exotic kind of fascination, was to have had, in rarefied circles, one's right to a heartbeat validated.

The play unfolds in the wee hours after the ball, in the apartments of three couples who attended. They're examples of the types who reputedly adored or were adored by Capote. Though the diminutive writer never appears, he's a presence in the play, invoked by all the characters, especially two women who profess to be among his "Swans," the holiest of holies in the hierarchy of Capote confidants.

Greenberg has these women clinging tenaciously to their status: "I was the model for Hol --" one of them starts to say before catching herself, in a reference to Holly Golightly, heroine of Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's." (It must be noted that it is questionable whether the discreet muses of Capote's acquaintance would ever have broadcast such a claim so gauchely.) The moment, though, captures the essence of "Bal Masque," a play that is at heart about America's enduring fascination with the rich. What's it like to live the soign é Manhattan life? The truth, Greenberg tells us, is that after hours, it's just as sad and lonely and tawdry as life for everybody else. The rich just have more stuff.

In one apartment, a settled older couple (Jeff Allin and Brigid Cleary), feeling as if they've been blown aside in the social whirlwind, wrestle testily with obsolescence and lethargy. In another, an abstract painter (Cameron McNary) goes home with a young socialite (Maia DeSanti), each trying to determine how useful the other will be in furthering their aspirations. In the third are the wallflower spouses (Colleen Delany and Todd Scofield) of the couple in the second apartment, dancing on the edge of a dalliance.

The play, as its title and subject suggest, is also about unmasking, about the realities that reveal themselves after revelry dies down. By the final blackout of "Bal Masque," uncomfortable truths will have emerged and distasteful secrets been confessed. But Greenberg's emotionally opaque narrative doesn't allow us to come to any intimate understanding of these people, and so the revelations have no cumulative impact. What does pay off with more frequency is the drollery of the repartee. The play is sprinkled with Greenberg's signature wit; it's not a put-down to say that "Bal Masque" sometimes plays like a high-end version of Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite."

The well-chosen actors do manage to seem as if they are creatures of the exorbitant canyons of the Upper East Side. Scofield, for example, is wonderfully on the money as a millionaire from Indiana who's never strayed from Midwestern plain and direct. After he tells Delany's Joanna that his Fifth Avenue apartment has 13 rooms and she asks if they're small, he replies matter-of-factly: "Three of them are small." It's guilelessness that makes the line work. DeSanti is beguiling as a young social piranha with a wild speech impediment that can milk a phrase such as "fwail, fwivowous cweature" for laughs. Delany, too, offers a memorable turn as DeSanti's polar opposite, a meek thing who's, nevertheless, transgressed in a most deplorable way.

As the older swells, Allin and Cleary are even sweller. A Cowardesque cloud of bitter irony envelops them as they pick apart the ball and disclose -- more in the words they avoid than in those they choose -- the state of their union. Dying for a smoke, they conspire to steal cigarettes from the room of the sleeping maid, and even after their mission is accomplished, they can't come up with a match. The fire in this relationship is most definitely out.

Daniel Conway contributes a functional yet striking set, with revolving panels that evoke each of the apartments, and costume designer Kathleen Geldard dresses the women chicly and sleekly. A recording of Philip Glass's "Glass Pieces" is an urbane bit of embroidery, too. Although Vreeke and the cast at Theater J have revealed the play in some satisfying ways, what still may be in need of some refinement are the ways in which Greenberg's characters reveal themselves.

Bal Masque , by Richard Greenberg. Directed by John Vreeke. Sets and lighting, Daniel Conway; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, Matt Rowe. About two hours. Through May 21 at Theater J, Goldman Theater at DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 

Bal Masque

by Richard Greenberg. Directed by John Vreeke.
Trey - Jeff Allin
Greer - Brigid Cleary
Marietta - Maia DeSanti
Owen - Cameron McNary
Joanna - Colleen Delaney
Russell - Todd Scofield
Truman Capote's famous 1966 Black & White Ball becomes a backdrop for biting social parody and analysis in Richard Greenberg's cleverly disjointed "Bal Masque," making its debut at D.C.'s Theater J. Greenberg's droll wit and linguistic dexterity are fully on display in this mostly satisfying piece.

A frivolous mood is set the instant the lights come up on a society couple seated in their New York living room, both wearing party masks. He's in a tux and she's in a long, white dress, her mask adorned with elaborate plumage that bobs with every movement like a restless bird. They have just returned from Capote's famous Plaza Hotel ball and are eager to savage all they surveyed.

The conversation is delightfully effete, delivered with hauteur. It builds slowly from vapid observations about nothingness -- short men, the "elegant prop" of a cigarette -- before turning to the party's guests and especially its host.

The couple trade diatribes on society's disturbing new era in which such "freaks" as Capote have suddenly gained the power to dictate who's in and who's out. Sadly for them, they are out, having been forced to crash the so-called party of the century to keep up appearances. "Remember what it was like to be us?" they ask wistfully.

Such is the vein that Greenberg merrily mines in "Masque," the latest product to drop from his well-oiled conveyor belt. It focuses on the problems of three ill-suited couples during the wee hours following the ball. While the party is the common thread, each vignette stands on its own in Greenberg's sometimes biting piece about changes in the social order during the turbulent '60s.

Theater J was invited to launch the play because it is considered one of the nation's top contemporary Jewish theaters, one that has in recent seasons specialized in new works. In fact, Greenberg probably couldn't have asked for a better venue. John Vreeke, Theater J's resident director, has staged the play with a keen eye for the absurdities being flaunted and the real-life troubles that lie just beneath them. Carefully crafted scenes are performed with impeccable timing and delicious bits of comedic movement.

Vreeke has assembled a talented ensemble that revels in Greenberg's messages of angst. As the act one couple, Brigid Cleary and Jeff Allin offer a hysterical pas de deux filled with silly moments and unrepressed anger. Just watching a slouching Cleary guzzle brandy and coffee chasers between verbal barrages would be worth the price of admission. Allin is every bit the polished aristocrat ready to seize an argument and an opportunity.

In act two, the situations become decidedly more tragicomic, and somewhat less satisfying, as Greenberg dives into the personal problems of two dysfunctional couples. The characters include one emotional castoff desperate to grab hold of any solid mooring (a portrait of insecurity by Colleen Delaney). Maia DeSanti adds comic relief as a wacky arts patron and self-professed Capote "swan" with an entertaining speech impediment. Cameron McNary and Todd Scofield play the troubled husbands. Play ends with a surprise Central Park encounter between two of the male characters.

The picture here isn't so much about cracks in the social class as it is about deep-seated issues that cross social boundaries. And while the parody of these self-obsessed individuals is at times cruel, a bigger problem is that the fluidity of the earlier antics isn't matched by the decidedly more manufactured mayhem that follows.

But perhaps that's just Greenberg toying with us. He has, after all, inventively penned each vignette in a distinctively different style in this comic treatise about absolute power. His "Bal Masque" is, on balance, another enjoyable entry into his fast-growing canon, one that will be pursued as much for its delicious female roles as for his searing insights into the upper crust.

Sets and lighting, Daniel Conway; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, Matt Rowe. Opened, reviewed April 9, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS.


Finely drawn in Black, White

By Jayne Blanchard
April 14, 2006

Even if you weren't there, you were there. Truman Capote's 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel was touted as "the party of the century." An invitation was a prized possession, and even such luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead had to beg for entry. Frank Sinatra and his waif bride, Mia Farrow, were in attendance, as was the reigning peacock, Mr. Capote, with guest of honor Katharine Graham and all his "swans" -- devoted socialites Babe Paley, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gloria Guinness, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill and Slim Keith.
    For the great unwashed, the masked ball -- the guests' entrances to which were shown nationwide on television -- represented the last vestige of old-school glamour, a throwback to a more elegant and decorous era. The Black and White Ball also symbolized the breaking down of social mores that was to occur throughout the '60s as downtown artists and writers rubbed dirty elbows with uptown bluebloods at the Plaza's main ballroom.
    Playwright Richard Greenberg explores this cultural shift, when a self-proclaimed "freak" and social outcast could rise to unprecedented power, in his intriguing and stylish chamber play "Bal Masque," a world premiere at Theater J impeccably directed by John Vreeke.
    The play also charts the hatchling days of celebrity worship, when the world was just beginning to become obsessed with and give disproportionate sway to A-list and B-list personalities. Although it probably seemed excessive in 1966, by today's standards, the star worship seen in "Bal Masque" seems rather innocent and picturesque.
    The play begins as the ball ends, with the guests returning home to their regularly scheduled lives. Three vignettes vary in tone and mood, but they share Mr. Greenberg's lacerating, laser wit and his mellifluous command of language.
    The first scene opens with the drop-dead line, "Well, that was the worst party I've ever been to," uttered with sangfroid by society matron Greer (a sublime Brigid Cleary). Clad in a white evening gown and matching feathered mask, Greer flings bon mots and fondant-ice brickbats with her black-masked husband, Trey (Jeff Allin, exuding lanky aristocratic nonchalance), a touchingly mild-mannered man to a manor born.
    At the beginning, Greer seems to be seized by an exquisite ennui as she picks apart the ball and her marriage, but then you realize her manicured claws have come out because she is a former "swan" snipped from Capote's invitation list. Greer and Trey slinked around the periphery of the party, within sniffing distance of the guests. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Greer now chokes on it.
    Eventually, they remove their masks, and their real faces become almost a lampoon of comedy and tragedy -- Greer's frozen in a rictus of good breeding and curdled resentment, Trey's melting into the lines of softly shocked disappointment.
    Mr. Greenberg has given each of these superbly matched actors a killer monologue, and both are delivered with devastating clarity -- Trey expressing both genteel rage and bewilderment as he decries the rising cult of celebrity and Greer recounting the time when she was one of Mr. Capote's favorites with the shimmering sexual languor of someone describing a former lover.
    The second vignette takes on a more antic, comic tone as the rich Marietta (Maia DeSanti) conducts a suggestive interview with Owen (Cameron McNary), an up-and-coming artist and antsy social climber. While the naughty Marietta scampers between being Owen's art patron and his lover, her husband, Russell (Todd Scofield), has been entrusted with seeing Owen's mousy wife, Joanna (Colleen Delany), home. He also has been told to stay away until dawn from their apartment, which, in Daniel Conway's chic and flexible set, prominently features a triptych of Andy Warhol screened prints of Marietta's face.
    Miss DeSanti is adorable as Marietta, a beautiful woman with a speech impediment that turns her into a patrician Elmer Fudd. She is both precocious and vacuous, a combination that seems to bewitch Owen, a man hilariously out of his league. Russell, a gallant fellow with solid Midwestern values, also seems out of his depths with the fragile Joanna, who seems to have just stepped out of the pages of a particularly lurid Flannery O'Connor short story. Miss Delany personifies the excesses of Southern gothic with genuine pain, never lapsing into melodrama.
    The third piece is the shortest and most hushed, a pre-dawn encounter on a park bench between Trey and Russell. Each man is, for the evening, without a home or wife, but of course, they are too well-mannered to cry on each other's dinner jackets. Instead, they bond over being fellow Princetonians and distant relatives until this unexpected closeness results in the breaking down of sexual barriers. Mr. Scofield, who largely reacts in the previous scenario, gets a chance to show the heartbreak and disappointment beneath his sturdy persona, and Mr. Allin uses Mr. Greenberg's high-flown wordplay to devastating effect in his portrayal of a man restless in a society that once gave him ease and comfort.
   Mr. Greenberg's work has begged comparisons to Noel Coward and Philip Barry, but his plays are more far-reaching and less self-consciously mannered than theirs. More precisely, Mr. Greenberg's plays, with their arabesques of language, humane humor and sense of moral searching, are more closely aligned to those of Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner.
    "Bal Masque" is an aria for the ears and the intellect.

April 14, 2006

Bal Masque

By Richard Greenberg
Directed by John Vreeke
At Theater J to May 21

Marietta legs her way into high society.

Review By Trey Graham

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.

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.

A CurtainUp DC  Review

Bal Masque

by Rich See

Theater J's world premiere of Richard Greenberg's Bal Masque is a witty, urbane and ultimately ferocious deconstruction of one celebrated night in American pop culture. Centered during the early morning hours of November 29, 1966, Greenberg's story looks at the aftermath of Truman Capote's famed Black and White Ball.

Mr. Greenberg places his microscope on three couples and the intertwining of their lives, following their attendance at the masked party. They include: Trey and Greer, a married duo who are obviously spouses in name only. Marietta and Russell, a wealthy husband and wife who have a strained relationship. And Owen and Joanna, an artist and his wife who appear to have arrived from the backwoods of Virginia. As everyone ponders the party, we see unraveling psyches obsessing over either inclusion in Capote's clique and wondering how close they are to being central to the artist, or how far from their own lives they have strayed and how dearly they want to return to their true identities.

It's this double use of masques that Mr. Greenberg has so skillfully employed. While half the cast is hiding behind their masks of emptiness, hoping to be noticed and validated by the famed writer, the other half is wishing to remove the facades that they have built their lives behind, and breathe more freely.

Thus as Greer (a wealthy socialite with very little to do) is agonizing over the fact that she -- one of Capote's "swans" -- was removed from the guest list at the last minute, her husband Trey is itching to go for a long solitary walk through Central Park to "buy a pack of cigarettes." The truth is, poor Greer has aged and Capote wants to be cruel, simply because -- he can.

Meanwhile in another apartment, Marietta (a wealthy socialite with very little to do) has ordered her husband Russell to wander the streets until sunrise, because she is "interviewing" Owen, an artist whom Capote has pointed out to her as being ripe for patronage. Russell thus dutifully escorts Owen's sickly wife Joanna (a young woman with nothing to do) home, whereupon, the mixed pairs begin to have heart-to-heart talks: Marietta and Owen discussing how much Capote likes them, Russell and Joanna filled with an inner sadness at being part of hip society.

Mr. Greenberg twists his plot well, so that everyone has a secret they need to express or are in search of a secret to share with Capote. Greer is dumbfounded over her exclusion and feels there must be some secret to why she was not invited and thus "forced" to endure the entire evening as an outcast hovering by the ballroom door and in the ladies' room. Marietta is desperate to uncover a secret within Owen in order to seal her place in Capote's affections. Owen is ecstatic to concoct a fake secret to improve his image with the writer.

Trey is carrying around his own secret, which accounts for his disdain for the out Capote who thrives on gossip. Joanna, who appears to be the most unsophisticated of the group, actually has the greatest secret -- a secret that really would seal Marietta's affection with Capote -- if only Marietta would take an interest in meek Joanna. And Russell, who not only has his own secret which would topple Marietta's place amongst the swans, also knows Joanna and Owen's dark tale. But Marietta, literally, doesn't have the time of day for the man who happens to be her husband.

The final scene occurs with Trey and Russell meeting just before dawn in Central Park, realizing they not only graduated from the same alma mater and are actually distant in-laws, but also saw each other at the ball and hated the entire party. After chatting they see they have something else in common -- a desire to honestly connect without the facades they have been wearing to protect their stature among the city's wealthy elite. And this seems to be Greenberg's main point within the play -- the masks we wear are of our own creation. We can remove them, they are not forced upon us, we simply have to have the courage to take a step forward and reveal ourselves. Others may not like what we show -- but what does their opinion really matter in the greater scheme of our lives?

Director John Vreeke has pulled together a great cast. The timing of this production is perfect; the tones, inflections and dry wit are wonderful. Set and lighting designer Daniel Conway has created a fitting stage that first appears like a great hall in a museum -- fittingly Trey and Greer's empty living room -- which reflects their empty marriage. Next it becomes Russell and Marietta's posh 13-room apartment and Owen and Joanna's tiny one-bedroom. The nature scene of New York City and Central Park is also wonderfully done with lights and an illusionary backdrop.

Matt Rowe's sound design begins as soon as you enter into the theatre with the sound of party noise and revelers floating from beyond the stage. Kathleen Geldard's costumes are chic evening wear with the men in basic tuxedos and the women in floor-length gowns.

In the cast, Jeff Allin creates a staid Trey pondering his reputation of conformity. His perfunctory and matter-of-fact delivery belies what he is really thinking. As Greer, Brigid Cleary is a distraught wife who knows her husband's secret -- even if she won't admit it to herself. The moment when they remove their masks, and their witty banter comes to a screeching halt as they realize they have nothing substantial to say to each other, speaks volumes.

Maia DeSanti's speech impaired Marietta is a treat as she offers up intellectual theories like "So I can be a positive force on society, I must retrain myself to love what I hate." while simultaneously running high heeled circles around Cameron McNary's southern artist. Mr. McNary's Owen is an uptight painter who seems to be hiding something darker within him, while trying to claw his way into Capote's inner circle, to receive the crown prince's blessing and be validated as, not only an artist, but also a person.

Colleen Delany brings out the rural Joanna's uncomfortableness with humor and pathos. Each time she nasally says "May I ask you to sit?" and then throws out her hands with a slight kneel, there's a chuckle throughout the audience. Between frequent trips to the bathroom and a slow build up to her revelation, you understand why Todd Scofield's Russ is so anxious to run out the front door. (It's easy to forget that this show takes place entirely in the early morning hours, which explains Joanna's frequent trips to the porcelain god.)

Mr. Scofield's likeable Russ Abbott reveals little about himself, but it's in what he's not saying that he brings the character alive. By the time he has arrived in Central Park with Trey, you realize this is a man who has no clue who he is or what he is about. He's followed the rules, listened to everyone else and ended up unhappy in his home life, disrespected by his wife and unknowing where he is heading.

All in all, Bal Masque is a great success and a definite treat. Washington audiences should give this gem a look in its first state -- since there are most likely changes to be made before it reaches New York -- where, I imagine, it will materialize at some point soon.


Theater J presents the world premiere play 'Bal Masque'

In his 1997 biography of Truman Capote, the eccentric, gay author whose literary works are regarded as among the best America has to offer, George Plimpton polled several people about their recollections of Capote's ''party of the century.'' The 1967 Black and White Ball made headlines. As guest John Knowles, remembered primarily for his novel A Separate Peace, told Plimpton:

''I felt as if we were in Versailles in 1788. People were applauding us in the street as we walked in. We had our masks on.... [W]e were he last of the aristocrats.''

Nearly 40 years later, Theater J is presenting a world premiere play by Richard Greenberg that uses the famed Black and White Ball for context: Bal Masque. But Capote sycophants, be warned.

''If you want some hefty, social statement about Truman Capote and the politics, the art of the time, you're not going to get it,'' says John Vreeke, the gay director of the new work. ''It's really just three couples after the ball, talking. That's the story. People love it for that reason, or they're disappointed because they expect a far more juicy, outrageous story about the Black and White Ball and Truman Capote.''

Instead, says Vreeke, audiences get a play staged in three very different parts -- not acts -- with inspired dialogue, precise stage direction, and an examination of human relationships that can stand on its own legs, rather than Capote's.

''The context of the play was not as important for me as understanding the individual characters and their relationships,'' says Vreeke.

Vreeke's own relationship with the play seems to have humbled him, in that he offers abundant praise for Greenberg's writing, saying that the playwright's attention to detail made it difficult to leave much of his own mark on Bal Masque.

''I get immense enjoyment from something that demands more directorial interpretation, which is not Bal Masque,'' Vreeke shares. ''At the same time, I will always drift toward the strongest writers. Greenberg's writing is extremely careful, precise, gifted. I just followed the stage direction and followed the rhythm of the language.''

DC Theatre Scene

Review by Tim Treanor 

Unmasqued. After the Bal

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.

April 3 - May 21, 2006
Bal Masque

Reviewed April 8
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages pick for sparkling dialogue
 delivered with style

The world premiere of a play by Richard Greenberg, one of the hottest playwrights working right now, is an important event. The fact that it is being done at (and by) Theater J right here on 16th Street is an important milestone in the development of that theater company. However, the reason to go see it is that it is just plain fun to watch. It may not pack the emotional power of Greenberg's Take Me Out, or the depth of character of his The Dazzle, but it offers a dazzling display of delightfully literate repartee delivered with stylish grace by a cast of six who work well as three pairs – well, four pairs actually, given the final twist of an epilogue that mixes and matches a bit differently.

Storyline: Three couples have returned home in the wee hours of the morning following Truman Capote's legendary 1966 Black and White Ball at  New York's Plaza Hotel. Not all have returned to their own apartments, however. One couple, who crashed the party, is at home. The others have switched partners for a while, although not always with the intention of intimacy. All six have found the evening much less satisfying than they expected. They think the fault must be in their own lives, not in any failing on the part of Capote or the literati assembled at "The Party of the Century." Of course, that would be unthinkable.

When Richard Greenberg gets fascinated by something, the result usually ends up on stage in a form that is fascinating for the audience. Here his interest is in the party for something less than 600 people in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel which was ostensibly to celebrate the publication of Capote's groundbreaking hit journalistic novel "In Cold Blood," but turned out to be much more a celebration of celebrity. Greenberg uses the occasion to explore the fascination that fame and its accompanying power can have for those who don't have it. Many of the characters here have expected this night of all nights to be a defining point in their lives. None has liked what they got. They do talk about it with great aplomb, however, exchanging quips and bons mot at a furious pace. Taking place as it does in what Frank Sinatra sang about as "the wee small hours of the morning" and among people who have had a most exhaustive, if not completely exhausting evening, it is amazing that any of them can rise to the literate expectations of their partners and keep up the level of banter. But they can and they do.

How wonderful to see Brigid Cleary back on this stage delivering lines that match the level of her craft. She opened Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul on this stage under director John Vreeke with a monologue of memorable impact. Now, with the same director, she opens Greenberg’s latest with a dialogue scene shared with Jeff Allin. It has the same hypnotic effect of setting the entire tone of the evening. Allin adds a laconic touch of class to the scene, especially during the first half when the two are masked. When they remove their masks, somehow the magic of mystery is diminished. But, then, isn't that the point? Maia DeSanti manages to keep the speech impediment of her character from being either her sole defining feature or a cheap gag, while Todd Scofield is subtly superb as her husband, a millionaire from the Midwest where people don't necessarily care quite as much about the cult of personality as they do on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Colleen Delany is both funny and touching as the wallflower he has accompanied home because they seem to have been left behind by their respective spouses. Cameron McNary is the artist who may or may not be reading patron of the arts DeSanti's intentions correctly.

A sense of stylishness permeates the production and it is isn’t limited to the work of the author and the actors. All the design elements contribute as well. Kathleen Geldard’s costumes, especially those for the ladies, capture the glitter of the characters’ pretensions with unerring accuracy. The masks go a long way toward establishing each character’s expectations for the evening. Daniel Conway has designed an elegant set with rotating panels that switch from Jackson Pollack-style paintings and modern sculpture to exposed brick and bric-a-brac. The feel is right and helps the cast make the most of the material. All in all -  what a kick!

Written by Richard Greenberg. Directed by John Vreeke. Design: Daniel Conway (set and lights) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Suzen Mason (properties) Matt Rowe (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Delia Taylor (stage manager). Cast: Jeff Allin, Brigid Cleary, Colleen Delany, Maia DeSanti, Cameron McNary, Todd Scofield.