David Greenspan Peers Beyond the Veil in Joey Merlo’s Eerie One-Person Show

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Rachel Syme
Staff writer

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In 1966, the same year the writer Truman Capote published his masterpiece, the true-crime epic “In Cold Blood,” excerpted in this magazine in 1965, Capote signed a new book deal with Random House. He promised the publisher that following “In Cold Blood”—a hybrid work of fiction and reportage, about a grisly murder in Kansas, which took more than five years to complete—he would write a novel called “Answered Prayers.” He pitched it as a delectable glimpse into the barbarous world of New York high society. Capote had become a favored bauble of the moneyed Manhattan set—rich doyennes loved inviting him to dinner to regale their guests with gabby stories about their friends and enemies, which he would deliver with theatrical glee in his breathy, distinctive high voice—and he planned to use what he had learned from his aristocratic safaris in his fiction. His “swans”—the term he used to describe his core group of upper-crust gal pals, including the socialites Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest, Slim Keith, and Lee Radziwill—surely were aware that Capote was a writer, and that everything they said might one day be used as material, but they also entrusted him with their most delicate and private confessions.

The situation was bound to combust, and it did: in 1975, nearly a decade late in delivering his manuscript, Capote published a chapter from his upcoming book in Esquire, and all hell broke loose. His swans felt betrayed—he changed their names, but laid out all their secrets—and vowed to destroy his social life. Between the brutal snubbing from his former friends and his excessive drinking habits, Capote began to spiral out of control, and he died, in 1984, without ever completing his book. This saga, with all its delicious twists and turns, forms the basis of the new FX/Hulu series “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” which premièred on Jan. 31. Tom Hollander is brilliant as Capote, and a bank of formidable actresses (Naomi Watts as Paley, Diane Lane as Keith, Chloë Sevigny as Guest, Calista Flockhart as Radziwill, Molly Ringwald as Joanne Carson, Demi Moore as Ann Woodward) play the women he both adored and exposed.

Truman Capote in 1979.

Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

If watching the series makes you yearn to know more, there are many books that will take you deeper into the mess. After Capote’s death, his editor managed to cobble together a partial manuscript for “Answered Prayers” and published the novel posthumously, in 1986. (It doesn’t all hold up, but it does contain such toothsome lines as “It was an atmosphere of luxurious exhaustion, like a ripened, shedding rose, while all that waited outside was the failing New York afternoon.”) The creative team of “Feud,” including Ryan Murphy, Jon Robin Baitz, and Gus Van Sant, took much of the story from Laurence Leamer’s 2021 group biography, “Capote’s Women,” which is a bit frothy as a read but still covers a large swath of material. Melanie Benjamin’s 2016 novel, “The Swans of Fifth Avenue,” is, in some sense, a spiritual precursor to the television show, as is Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s “Swan Song.” If you want to go even deeper, you can dive into the scandalous marriage of Ann and Billy Woodward (Capote slyly suggested, in his book, that Ann murdered her husband) in Susan Braudy’s biography “This Crazy Thing Called Love”; pick up the coffee-table book “C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon”; or get your hands on a vintage copy of David Grafton’s out-of-print biography of the Cushing sisters (Babe Paley was once Babe Cushing). Lastly, you can find all of the swans out in the wild inside Deborah Davis’s 2006 book, “Party of the Century,” which chronicles Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball, of 1966; the party, which Capote threw for Katharine Graham at the Plaza Hotel, was glamorous, exclusive, and ultimately ill-fated. It turned out to be one of the last times that Capote and his swans would all flock together.


Photograph by Victor Llorente for The New YorkerOff Off Broadway

David Greenspan, one of downtown theatre’s exquisites, performs an entire psychedelic noir narrative in Joey Merlo’s “On Set with Theda Bara,” a one-person show for many voices. In Merlo’s delirious play—staged by the director Jack Serio with the audience seated at a long table in a pitch-dark room—a genderqueer teen is missing, and their detective father is on the case. The gumshoe finds that all roads somehow lead to Theda Bara, the real silent-screen sex symbol, nicknamed “the Vamp” for her iconic roles as a hypnotic, exotic lamia. Greenspan performs all the parts around, and sometimes on, the table. The show operates as a séance—phantasmal essences shift in your peripheral vision, and a chill breath finds the back of your neck.—Helen Shaw (The Brick; Feb. 6-March 9.)

About Town


In October, 2020, a group of men affiliated with a ragtag Michigan militia, some of whom had attended an armed COVID-lockdown protest at the state capitol that spring, were arrested for plotting to kidnap the governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Because F.B.I. informants had infiltrated the group, befriending the would-be kidnappers, the case yielded an extraordinary amount of secretly recorded audio, which the reporters Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison employ expertly in “Chameleon: The Michigan Plot.” Taking listeners into the heart of the action—often Coen-brothers-esque in its characters’ hapless humanity—the series asks if its subjects were credible domestic terrorists or just “hyped-up stoners who talked too much,” egged on, unbeknownst to them, by the F.B.I.; the results are as provocative as they are tragicomic.—Sarah Larson

Classical Music

Miller Theatre, a hotbed of musical exploration, at Columbia University, has both ends of the classical spectrum pretty well covered. For its acclaimed “Composer Portraits” series, which seeks out creators of new and unusual sounds, the International Contemporary Ensemble taps into the scrambled kineticism of the German composer Carola Bauckholt’s work (Feb. 8). On the early-music side, Gesualdo Six, an exquisite vocal ensemble specializing in Renaissance polyphony, samples from its haunting and consoling album “Lux Aeterna” (Feb. 17). Miller’s “Pop-Up Concerts” invite audiences to be radically present: at free, hourlong programs, listeners are seated onstage for intimate encounters with such music as Beethoven’s cello sonatas, played by the adventuresome Conrad Tao and Jay Campbell (Feb. 13).—Oussama Zahr (Miller Theatre; select dates Feb. 8-17.)

R. & B.

Photograph by Raven B. Varona

When the singer Tinashe broke through with her club-focussed 2014 single, “2 On,” it seemed as if her aspirations to be a major-label pop star were within her grasp. In 2011, after her girl group the Stunners disbanded, she had carved out space for herself with a series of wondrous, wispy alt-R. & B. mixtapes, which won the attention of RCA Records. When that stardom never materialized, through a three-album run that gradually strayed from her early music’s astral allures, she returned to charting her own path. The records that Tinashe has released since, independently—“Songs For You” (2019), “333” (2021), and “BB/ANG3L” (2023), each more unconventional than the last—showcase an artist who is at her most comfortable, and experimental, working beyond the industry pale.—Sheldon Pearce (Terminal 5; Feb. 9.)

Off Broadway

Max Wolf Friedlich’s play “Job” opens point-blank, with a young woman aiming a gun at her therapist. He talks her into putting it away, but our awareness of it never disappears, even amid the frequently funny dialogue that follows. The woman, Jane (a terrifyingly unpredictable Sydney Lemmon), is on leave from her job at a big-name tech company after a disruptive panic attack; she’s come to the therapist (a comfortingly genial Peter Friedman) for a psychological evaluation, which she needs in order to return to work. Yes, the situation is absurd, but thanks to the playwright, the performers, and the director Michael Herwitz—a master of unsettling effects—it’s also engrossing and disturbing, especially as the nature of Jane’s work emerges. It might even scare you off social media for a day or two.—Dan Stahl (Connelly Theatre; through March 3.)


Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown.”

Photograph courtesy Miramax/Photofest

Oscars may matter in the movie business for the short term, but the history of cinema advances without regard to the statuettes, as displayed in the teeming six-week series “Snubbed 2: The Performances.” It spotlights movies featuring widely acclaimed performances that went unnominated, such as Pam Grier’s tough-minded and dialectically deft title role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown”; Charles Grodin’s brilliant comedic turn as a near-schlub who achieves self-liberation through insincerity and deceit in Elaine May’s “The Heartbreak Kid”; and Gena Rowlands’s star performance in John Cassavetes’s “Opening Night,” one of the great movies about the emotional toll of acting, as an actress preparing for a play, who—fearing that her own aging is being exploited by the elderly playwright—transforms the work by means of furious improvisations.—Richard Brody (Museum of the Moving Image; through March 10.)


After nearly sixty years of making dances, Twyla Tharp shows no signs of stopping. Recent programs have featured burnished classics along with some revelatory back-of-the-drawer stuff, but she’s been creating new works, too. If these have been less inspired, still, it would be a mistake to assume that her best is all in the past, and she continues to draw extra effort from both the veterans and the up-and-coming dancers in her pickup troupes. Her latest program introduces “The Ballet Master,” an ensemble piece set to Vivaldi, and “Brel,” a solo set to Jacques Brel. How might her take on that mid-century sardonic-romantic Belgian bounce off a revival of “Ocean’s Motion,” her 1975 treatment of Chuck Berry tracks?—Brian Seibert (Joyce Theatre; Feb. 13-25.)

Pick Three

The staff writer Hua Hsu shares current obsessions.

1. I take great comfort in the music of Theo Parrish, a Chicago-raised, Detroit-based d.j. and producer who specializes in a soulful, slow-burning, occasionally off-kilter approach to house. When I’m unable to decide what to listen to, I’ll put on one of his mixes, many of which are drawn from gigs that can stretch to ten hours. You’ll hear a bit of everything—even the skip of an old record—and your life will be better for it. The latest issue of Blank Forms, from the arts organization of the same name, features a nearly two-hundred-page interview with him, by the music writer Mike Rubin, in which Parrish muses on creativity, Blackness, and why listening to the pops on old records reminds us of our own imperfections.

2. There’s an every-now-and-then party in Bushwick, in Brooklyn, called Musicland—you can find them on Instagram. Once there, leave your phone in your pocket. It starts late and ends early in the morning, and you will dance among plants, old records, and exceedingly friendly strangers, to some of the city’s best d.j.s. Musicland parties draw a slightly older crowd than the warehouse raves a few blocks away; imagine a tiny, warm, inviting house party. Step inside for a few hours of shelter and community—you will lose and then find yourself.

Illustration by Benedikt Luft

3. On view at the Eric Firestone gallery, in NoHo, is “Godzilla: Echoes from the 1990s Asian American Arts Network.” Curated by Jennifer Samet, it explores the legacy of the visionary, come-as-you-are group of Asian American artists whose work collectively stress-tested what this shared category could mean.

P.S. Good stuff on the Internet:

  • Paul Mescal’s “Chicken Shop Date”
  • Thai curry split peas with roasted squash
  • A deep dive on Sarah J. Maas

Sourse: newyorker.com

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