Brigid Cleary and Jeff Allin in Bal Masque
(Photo © Stan Barouh)
Brigid Cleary and Jeff Allin in Bal Masque
(Photo © Stan Barouh)
White-hot playwright Richard Greenberg tweaks our obsession with celebrity and power in Bal Masque, which is now being given a stylish world premiere production at Theater J. Using Truman Capote's notorious Black and White Ball of 1966 as its fulcrum, Greenberg provocatively explores several topical issues while also offering the bitchy and bright dialogue for which he is rapidly becoming famous.

The conversations in this chamber piece take place in the wee hours after the celebrated masked ball has ended. Held at the Plaza Hotel, the event occurred just as several figures on the cultural fringe -- represented by pop superstars such as Andy Warhol -- were threatening the societal supremacy of the insiders. An invitation to the ball was make-or-break documentation that you had either arrived or survived.

In riffing on this event and its aftermath, Greenberg of course comments on the psychological masquerades in which people engage for self-protection and/or self-promotion. But the play is also a study of power: what it is, who has it, and what mischief they can wield with it. Though Greenberg may not have much new to say on these subjects, his eye for detail is keen, and the sparks that fly are wickedly entertaining.

Bal Masque focuses on three different couples. In the 40-minute first act, we meet Greer (Brigid Cleary), formerly one of the "swans" whom Capote allowed to flutter about him but now an aging matron who has fallen to the back of the pack. She and her husband Trey (Jeff Allin) were not invited to the ball but showed up anyway to mingle at its edges. Back home in their swank apartment, Greer unloads her frustrations and resentments on her diffident husband. Sprawled in a chair, with cognac swirling in her glass and her eyes glowering through the elaborate white, feathered mask she still wears, she grandly intones: "Well, that was the worst party I've ever been to."

As the act progresses, the couple singe numerous targets with lethal barbs and observations. Powerless against his wife's digs at him, Trey deplores the changes in society and expresses outrage that such a sumptuous affair could be the result of a murder in a Kansas farmhouse -- a reference to the event and the subsequent imprisonment and trial that Capote shaped into his blockbuster "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. Cleary goes slightly over the top as the disaffected and resentful Greer, while Allin takes a subtler but no less effective approach to his role.

In the considerably longer second act, two stories play out. Marietta (Maia DeSanti), Capote's self-proclaimed "top swan," toys with a struggling painter named Owen (Cameron McNary, who sounds more British than Southern). Marietta is the most complex character in the play; she's trying to use Owen for her own purposes while simultaneously seeking to shore up her relationship with Capote. Owen might be useful to her as she seeks to build a reputation as a grand patron of the arts with her husband's money, but she also needs a juicy tidbit of gossip to feed "Tru" in order to maintain her favored position, and Capote (unseen here) is convinced that the artist is hiding a dark secret.

There is also a scene between Marietta's husband, Russell (Todd Scofield), and Owen's wife, Joanna (Colleen Delany), at the artist's rundown apartment. Russell is a hapless sort who has agreed to be banished from his own apartment until his wife is finished with Owen; Joanna is a nervous wreck who gradually, between bouts of retching, reveals a horrible secret as Greenberg veers dangerously close to Tennessee Williams territory and the play momentarily loses its focus.

Though still entertaining, the dialogue in the second act isn't as razor-sharp as that in the first. Much of the humor comes not from pointed discourse but instead stems from the odd French accent that's employed by DeSanti. Yet the biggest laugh of the play comes in response to a joke so sly that, at the performance I attended, about three seconds elapsed before the audience realized it was a joke. Once they got it, they roared.

This extremely polished production plays out on Daniel Conway's versatile modernist set, which allows rapid shifts between the parallel scenes. In the play's final moments, two of the characters meet by chance on a park bench, giving Greenberg a chance to pull his various strings together while also touching on another aspect of the social change that was underway in the '60s -- i.e., the sexual revolution. The times, they were a-changin' in more ways than one.