- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 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.


WHAT: “Bal Masque” by Richard Greenberg

WHERE: Theater J, DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (no shows Wednesday or Thursday or April 18 or 19 because of Passover), 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Sundays. Through May 11.

TICKETS: $15 to $40 PHONE: 800/494-TIXS


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