By Dennis O’Connor
Back when Darrell Hammond was a student at the University of Florida, Truman Capote spoke at a campus event. When it came time for the question and answer segment, Capote was primed.
Hammond’s voice rises as he tells the story.
“I’m watching, and at the end of his speech, a guy steps up to the microphone and asks Capote if he’s gay. After an appropriate pause, Capote answers, ‘Is that a proposition?’ The place erupted in laughter and applause. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I said ‘I want to do that.’”
The standup comedian and actor went on “to do that” with tremendous success, perhaps most famously in his impressions of former President Bill Clinton (along with 106 other characters) as the longest-running cast member in “Saturday Night Live” history (14 years).
Next week, when Hammond takes the stage in the role of Truman Capote in Jay Presson Allen’s “Tru” at Bay Street Theatre (previews start May 31), it will be hard for him not to think back to that evening and the man who inspired him to become a performer.
“Tru” largely focuses on Capote’s later career as a talk show fixture, following publication in Esquire magazine of several controversial chapters of his roman a clef, “Answered Prayers.”
“I recall seeing Capote on ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ — and the guy was funny,” Hammond recalled in a recent telephone interview. “He got lots of big laughs and applause breaks on that show; but more importantly he got Johnny to laugh.”
Like Carson, Hammond doesn’t just make others crack up; he appears to enjoy a good laugh himself at times. He brightened when recalling yet another Capote talk show appearance, this time on “The Dick Cavett Show.”
Capote was sitting next to Groucho Marx, he said, and “the two of them going back and forth was hilarious.” The legendary exchange included a proposal of marriage from Groucho to Capote, which led to Groucho delivering a rousing rendition of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”
“Tru” is set at Christmastime 1975, in Capote’s apartment on the 28th floor of United Nations Plaza, at a low point in his career. The renowned author and pied piper of the demimonde lounges about, singing, conversing on the phone, talking to the audience, tossing out such pithy epigrams as: “ It’s a scientific fact that for every year you live in California, you lose two points of your IQ” and “I used to be famous for writing books — now I’m famous for being famous.”
If any characterization could encapsulate Capote during this period, it is that second one-liner. He was a man scorned, cast out of the inner circle by people who trusted him, who had confided in him. He had betrayed their confidence in “Answered Prayers,” they believed, and so was excised, cut out. “Tru” finds him very much alone, and hurting.
Tony Award winning actress Judith Ivey is directing Hammond in this one-man show, which the actor considers a blessing.
“I depend on a strong director,” he said, and he has worked with some of the best. “I’m not looking for a politician. I’m looking for someone who really knows what they’re doing, like Judith Ivey or James Lapine, or Lorne Michaels.”
Ivey may be best known to television viewers as B.J. Poteet on “Designing Women,” though she has also enjoyed a successful career on stage and in films. She was recently seen in the role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. She later reprised the role at Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre. Her directing credits include “Vanities: A New Musical” (Pasadena Playhouse), “Fugue” (Cherry Lane), and “Steel Magnolias” (Alley Theatre).
Elaborating on his need for a strong directorial influence in his work, Hammond talked about working with director James Lapine, playing Vice Principal Douglas Panch in Broadway’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
“It was frightening. He doesn’t mince words. He’s the best of the best at this,” noted Hammond. “But the stronger the director, the better I am. Otherwise, I’ll just wander off in my own head and do something silly.”
Hammond has recently been seen playing what’s been described as a “creepy” character called, The Deacon — a character as cold as dry ice — in the “Damages” TV series.
“We modeled the character on a guy I served when I was tending bar part-time in Hell’s Kitchen in the early ’80s, a guy who was so unnerving that I never forgot him,” Hammond said. “When they called me in to audition for the part, I had that guy in mind. I did the monologue based on this guy I had served a white wine spritzer to, many years ago. I sat down with them on the set and I said, ‘Here it is. This is what I see.’ And they said, ‘Perfect. That’s the guy.’”
While playing the Deacon is a big departure for the typically comedic actor, it has also provided him with an opportunity to display the depth of his talents. The industrious Hammond is also branching out into other creative forms with a book due out from Harper-Collins in October of this year.
“It’s not going to be what people think,” he said, although he is tight-lipped about any between-the-covers content. Still, his playful, irreverent styles shine through in the title: “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F***ed.”
Putting the actor together with the role of Truman Capote seemed a natural fit for Bay Street Theatre artistic directors Sybil Christopher and Murphy Davis, who had been interested in staging “Tru” for a number of years.
“I think it’s a very strong and powerful piece,” Davis said last week. “The play takes place at an especially important time in Capote’s life. He has undermined himself in a very destructive way, but this is him examining his state of affairs with his unique wit, humor, and insight.”
Davis also expressed surprise at how prepared Hammond was at the first rehearsal.
“When he showed up, he had memorized three quarters of the script,” Davis said, adding that, “we were amazed at how he had gotten to the essence of Capote — the voice, the mannerisms. We were really blown away.”
Hammond had parts in two previous productions at Bay Street Theatre, in Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy” and David Mamet’s “Romance,” but “Tru” promises to be his most demanding role yet.
As the sole performer on stage for two acts, he will have to become Truman Capote. But this time, when he hears the laughter and applause, it will be for him, Darrell Hammond. And he will surely think back to that night at the university theater in Gainesville, when the character he is playing now launched him on the path to becoming the performer he is today. It is pure symmetry.
The Bay Street Theatre 2011 Mainstage season begins with Jay Presson Allen’s “Tru” starring Darrell Hammond, directed by Judith Ivey. Previews begin Tuesday, May 31 at 8 p.m. Opening night is Saturday, June 4 and the show runs through June 26. Shows are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. (with matinees on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and Saturdays at 4 p.m.) For tickets and information, call 725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org. The theatre is located on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.
Dennis O’Connor of Laurel is an MFA candidate in the graduate program in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton.