Cory Michael Smith and Emilia Clarke star in <i>Breakfast at Tiffany's</i>.
Cory Michael Smith and Emilia Clarke star in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

She was a "spectral presence," the nameless narrator played Cory Michael Smith (The Whale) says in describing Holly Golightly within the opening moments of Breakfast at Tiffany's, but there's more than one ghost haunting the Cort Theatre. For many audience members, the Holly we briefly view in the show's opening section — in the personage of British actress Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) — will have to spend the next two hours erasing our memories of the beguiling-yet-maddening creature described by novella author Truman Capote and embodied by the peerless Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards' 1961 film.

It would be a pleasure to say Clarke lives up to this seemingly insurmountable task, or that playwright Richard Greenberg and director Sean Mathias have given her all the tools necessary to accomplish it. But instead, what ends up on stage is a sometimes plodding, sometimes diverting work that succeeds far more in having us invest in what happens to our narrator — due in large measure to Smith's sensational Broadway debut — than the aptly named Miss Golightly.

Greenberg has kept the novella's episodic first-person structure narrated by "Fred" (as Holly dubs him in honor of her beloved brother), lifted enormous chunks of Capote's beautiful-if-wordy prose, and transferred it straight onto the stage. For all their fidelity, these choices nonetheless rob the play of some potential dramatic momentum. There's a little too much of a this-happened-then-this-happened quality for the proceedings to be completely engaging.

The production could be a little more lavish, as well, though the designers have done their jobs well. Derek McLane's most memorable creation is the bar that we first see when the play begins in flashback in 1957, and which reappears later in the show. Otherwise, his work is simple, yet evocative, especially in conjuring up such 1940s surroundings as Holly and Fred's apartments and a local hamburger joint. Colleen Atwood has whipped up some beautiful dresses for Clarke's Holly, along with period-authentic duds for the rest of the company. Wendall K. Harrington's projections of classic New York locations, many of which appear before the action starts, also add nicely to the atmosphere.

Beautiful and petite, Clarke tries her best to capture all the contradictions inside Holly, a self-made city sophisticate who has reinvented herself. While she offers up the countless "darling" and blithely tosses off French expressions like "mille tendresse," Clarke's Holly is too clearly a phony-phony, not the "real phony who believes all the crap she's saying" as described by boorish Hollywood agent OJ Berman (an excellent Lee Wilkof). Sure, she might be the toast of the local demimonde, a toy for a lonely, probably asexual playboy like the doughy Rusty Trawler (Tony Torn), or the object of semi-paternal devotion by gruff yet kindly barkeep Joe Bell (a superb George Wendt), but this naïf in couture clothing is hardly the kind of woman a Rockefeller would take to dinner at 21.

Moreover, in this telling, Holly exists primarily as a vehicle for Fred to come to terms with his true self: an observer of life who fears being a participant and a man who struggles to fully accept his sexuality. Yes, he's "in love" with Holly, and as hinted at in a provocative nude bathtub scene, he probably does desire her physically. Still, while Capote only hinted at the sexuality of the book's narrator, Greenberg makes Fred's true leanings more clear. In fact, the few scenes invented by Greenberg — including one where Fred finally takes Holly's advice and belatedly tries to pursue a married editor (John Rothman)or another where he's fired by his stuffy magazine boss (Suzanne Bertish) for having an illicit tryst with another man in the company's supply closet — are among the play's most successful moments.

Equally compelling are the rare heart-to-hearts and tete-a-tetes between Holly and Fred, who is the first to discover who she really is (or was) when her long-estranged husband, Doc (Murphy Guyer), suddenly reappears. In these scenes, Clarke does a superb job of showing us the bruised, frail interior hidden beneath Holly's glamorous exterior. In fact, her finest moments come towards the play's end, when Holly drops her pretensions and admits she has little to hold onto other than Fred and her equally independent pet cat.

And yes, the feline (Vito Vincent at my performance) does just fine, but it would take more than a cute face and furry body to steal the show from Smith. His emotionally (and physically) naked, deeply felt performance not only gives the show its true heart and soul, but proves to be the crown jewel of this Breakfast at Tiffany's.