In 1980, perhaps in an attempt to create a new Christmas tradition, Lincoln Center presented Truman Capote reading from his own works in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater.
Not surprisingly, it did not become an annual event. The sight of the freeze-dried man, reading in a sibilant, whining, high-pitched voice was hardly "a draw." The few chic friends he still had left attended the opening, and there were apparently not enough status-hungry, masochistic New Yorkers around to make the run profitable.
I feel certain that if the producers had substituted Robert Morse for the actual Truman Capote, they might have had a sure thing.
For Morse has achieved something remarkable in "Tru," Jay Presson Allen's play about the writer. He is unmistakably Capote, from the gurgling voice to the peremptory manner. But he also manages to make him surprisingly poignant. Morse makes us see, through the meanspiritedness and vanity, a Little Boy Lost.
Allen has set the play at Christmas time 1975, just after Capote had horrified his high society friends by writing about their personal lives in Esquire. This was part of a work-in-progress that would have been his first book since "In Cold Blood" 10 years earlier.
That book had made him the most famous and one of the richest writers in America. Just as Andy Warhol defined what it meant to be an artist from th '60s on, Capote set the standards for literary success, in which celebrity counted far more than good writing.
Earlier in 1975, he published a short story in Esquire that could only be called atrocious; he must have sensed it himself and thus embarked on a new career peddling gossip as literature. The price of his new notoriety was the loss of friends he genuinely valued.
Allen sets her play about him during the holidays, when he waits for their forgiveness. A narcissistic middle-aged man awaiting phone calls from socialites may not strike all theatergoers as an intensely dramatic situation.
But Allen builds her play skillfully, starting with Tru on the phone, having him speak to someone offstage and only then having him address us directly, totally avoiding the didactic tone that invariably suffuses one-person plays about the famous. She captures both his wit and malice beautifully.
Morse's work is sheer joy. We first see him reclining on a Victorian sofa in his otherwise ultra-fashionable apartment. As he gets up, he teeters like a punch toy that always rights itself. Capote's life, we see at once, is an increasingly precarious balancing act.
For the first act, he wears a loose brown sweater as much at odds with the chic decor as the sofa but a useful reminder that Capote was, at heart, a nasty Southern cracker. What Morse conveys touchingly is a man at war with himself - the impish, once beautiful boy still eager to dazzle his elders and the worldly, jaded man full of disgust at what he knows about everybody, including, most probably, himself.
He was a serious gadfly, friend and chronicler of the rich and sometimes infamous, annoying and amusing in turn, a man equally capable of sycophancy and insult.
He was his own worst enemy of his own promise. He was Truman Capote - an Oscar Wilde of a milder kind. And now he is back - and Robert Morse has got him to the living life and lifestyle in Jay Presson Allen's mono-drama "Tru," which opened last night at the Booth Theater.
Like Wilde, Capote tried to make his life a work of art, but it turned out to be a rather shabby, inconsequential sketch. Yet Capote was far from being without talent.
From that intriguing first novel of an ornate childhood, "Other Voices, Other Rooms" in 1948, to "Breakfast at Tiffany's" 10 years later, to his innovative 'non-fiction' novel "In Cold Blood" in 1966, Capote trembled on the verge of distinction. He never tumbled in.
He was a journalist and a professional gossip, and although many people - myself included - found him profoundly unlikable, even his weird snobbism was not that of a nonentity.
And now in this tour de force of a performance by Morse, with the enormous help of his forceful tour guide, author and director, Mrs. Allen, Capote - the dark comic hero of so many late-night TV talk shows - really does live again.
But the Capote that lives in this one-character play, taken from the words and works of its shyly exhibitionist subject, is not the Capote of masterful promise - the prose stylist of such stories as "Hand Made Coffins" - but the wasted, almost poignant figure, deserted by his "friends" (the social hands he had finally bitten) after the publication of excerpts from his scandalous last novel, "Answered Prayers."
Nearing death, socially ostracized, fighting - somewhat faint-heartedly - alcoholism and drug addiction, Capote, a bloated little dandy looking far older than his 51 years, is holed up in his lavish apartment at United Nations Plaza just before Christmas, 1975.
Allen's script is a most elegant example of that odd dramatic form, the celebrity profile/interview as theater. A development of the kind of impersonationary one-man show first brought to a fine art by Emlyn Williams playing Charles Dickens, this more complex form is an inner dialogue with a silent interviewer in the shape of an audience.
"Tru" is excellent of its kind - how excellent you find it will depend on your interest in Capote and how much you like the kind, not to mention your capacity for gossip, and, perhaps most of all, your appreciation of Morse's compulsively intense and mesmerically appealing acting.
Nothing happens. Nothing is really revealed - although Morse/Capote does perform the inevitable emotional and intellectual striptease of any garrulous person invited to address appreciative silence.
Morse's performance, complete with insidiously drawling lisp, the leprechaun rictus of a grin with the head thrown back and the tongue jerking out as if on a string, and that careless sense of middle-aged maniacal naughtiness, is handsomely sustained.
Morse mugs and gesticulates - at one time he even goes into a tap dance to Louis Armstrong - he drops names like a telephone directory, and tells stories in which his lifestyle is the hero.
And he pleads for our attention, like a Peter Pan not sure that he can still fly - perhaps not even all that sure that he ever flew. But he basks in the audience's laughter, bending to the applause as tropically as a flower to sunlight.
It is a feat for this peep show to hold our attention - singlehandedly and singlemindedly - for two hours or so, and this is a credit to the joyously flamboyant Morse, the resourceful Allen and, hardly least, the abandoned Christmas boy himself, Capote.
Also more than a word is due to the set designer David Mitchell (who not only has devised a splendidly sybaritic pad for Capote, but given it a cityscape view that is a real estate dream) and the lighting designers, Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz.
Now one wonders who will play Andy Warhol in the sequel?
When the curtain rises on the bloated, jowly bubble of flesh that is the title character of ''Tru,'' Jay Presson Allen's monodrama about Truman Capote, a sentimental theatergoer is not so much startled by the resurrection of Capote, who died in 1984, as shocked by the obliteration of Robert Morse, last seen on Broadway in the mid-1970's. Buried somewhere in that skin-colored tub of Jell-O - the work of makeup man Kevin Haney, whose credits include the movies ''Altered States'' and ''Wolfen'' - is the sprite whose grin of impetuous youth charmed a nation in ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'' a good quarter-century ago.
Somewhere, but where? As the present Mr. Morse warms to his task at the Booth, dangling his wrists and slurring his words while puttering about the designer David Mitchell's handsome replica of Capote's final home at the United Nations Plaza, it's hard to find the performer one remembers. With his mad shopping-bag woman's cackle and darting lounge lizard's tongue, Mr. Morse so eerily simulates the public Capote of the pathetic waning years that he could be a Capote robot, an Audio Animatronic figure in a macabre theme park, Xenonland perhaps, envisioned by Andy Warhol.
As Tru rambles on, however, the actor inside the flab does eventually emerge, and engagingly so. Mr. Morse can still look at an audience as if it were a mirror reflecting his own smiling face back at him. The mischievous twinkle in his eyes is as bright as ever; the rasp in his throat still makes him sound not just like Capote but also like the director Harold Prince (whom he once spoofed in the musical ''Say, Darling''). And when, late in Act II, Tru takes to tapping and strutting to a Louis Armstrong recording of ''The Sunny Side of the Street,'' Mr. Morse kicks a loose-limbed leg as high and friskily as he did when joining Bob Fosse's hoedown for the ''Brotherhood of Man'' finale in ''How to Succeed.''
By then one is glad to have met up with this actor again, is impressed by his command of his technique and his audience, and is moved by the courage that has allowed him to return to a Broadway stage in so unlikely a vehicle. But even then, his two-hour solo flight of celebrity impersonation makes for a very weird night out.
A reunion with Capote - or at least Mrs. Allen's representation of him -may not be everyone's idea of theater. Intentionally or not, ''Tru'' is a creep show: a hybrid of necrophilia and tame fan-magazine journalism that doesn't so much rekindle fascination with a troubled writer as reawaken the willies prompted by those disoriented talk-show appearances (remember ''The Stanley Siegel Show''?) that were the desperate final act of his career.
Mrs. Allen sets her discursive monologue in the nights before Christmas 1975, when Tru is reeling from the social ostracism that followed Esquire magazine's publication of ''La Cote Basque, 1965,'' the gossipy excerpt from his never-to-be finished roman a clef, ''Answered Prayers.'' Tru can no longer get his dearest friends, Babe (Paley) and Slim (Keith), on his heavily trafficked two-line speakerphone and instead must tag along with Ava Gardner to Quo Vadis. His last lover is nowhere in sight. Pills, vodka, cocaine and chocolate truffles all tempt him to oblivion.
There is, heaven knows, a prospective drama here. Why did the author of such precocious fiction as ''Other Voices, Other Rooms'' and such adventurous new journalism as ''In Cold Blood'' betray his muse for the silly full-time job of being famous? Why did he turn on the super rich after two decades as their lap dog? Why did ''Answered Prayers'' mortally offend the Women's Wear Daily crowd? Speculative answers exist -most prominently in Gerald Clarke's biography ''Capote'' - but Mrs. Allen rarely explores them.
Tru's defense of ''Answered Prayers'' - spunky credos about the outlaw role of the writer - is too retroactive and pat to explain his literary death wish. His asides about mortality and suicide are not compelling enough to explain away his self-destruction. Even factual information essential to understanding Capote's current plight is missing, including any description of the actual contents of ''Answered Prayers.''
While Tru announces that everyone loves stories that tell ''something horrendous about someone impeccable,'' Mrs. Allen never does dish much dirt. Perhaps she, unlike Capote, is afraid to offend the living. Nothing truly bitchy is said about the many famous names titillatingly dropped in ''Tru''; some major Capote antagonists (most conspicuously Gore Vidal) are not mentioned at all.
Nor does the audience get the measure of the man Capote used to be. It's typical of ''Tru'' that it offers references to his Christmas shopping at Tiffany's but no recollections about ''Breakfast at Tiffany's.'' A few childhood memories are recounted -complete with a hokey echo-chamber voice from the past - and, for schematic contrast with his grim 1975 holiday season, Capote's memoir ''A Christmas Memory'' is recited in excerpt. Yet Mrs. Allen's script is unable to evoke the ghost of the driving, eccentric writer who was still flourishing as late as when Mr. Morse was in ''How to Succeed.''
In place of a life portrait with depth, ''Tru'' settles for its wind-up Mme. Tussaud's caricature of the wrecked 1975 model Capote. This Tru is sporadically funny - if one shares Mrs. Allen's taste for the campiest of anecdotes and one-liners - and rarely boring. But since the soul of the younger Capote doesn't shine through as Mr. Morse's youthful spirit does, the potentially touching drama of decay is lost. The complex, possibly tragic figure of a wasted artist is replaced by a maudlin, some might say antediluvian, stereotype of ''Boys in the Band'' vintage: the alcoholic moneyed homosexual who, having lost his youth and beauty, is left all alone with his telephone and record collection in his penthouse on Christmas Eve.
A few manufactured tears notwithstanding, the evening's histrionic level is so uniform that any half-hour of ''Tru'' will probably be enough for most onlookers. True Tru fanatics, of course, will devour it all. Everyone will agree that the star's energy never flags. While Mr. Morse may not succeed in drawing the audience to Truman Capote, he does leave one eager to see a born-again actor inhabit other voices, other rooms.