Molding an Image

In his new play, Edward Albee for the first time writes about a real person, sculptor Louise Nevelson. Born in 1899 outside Kiev, Russia, of Jewish parents, Nevelson immigrated with her family at age 6 to join her father in Rockland, Maine, where he had gone before. Eventually she left for New York and became a major American artist. Though Albee’s choice may seem baffling, the artists have a lot in common. Albee’s late partner was a sculptor, and Nevelson was a friend for many years. Albee makes much of Nevelson’s struggle to be accepted as an artist—to “occupy” her space. It’s easy to forget that his own star waned during the 1970s and 1980s, until he stormed back with Three Tall Women in 1992. After a series of flops like The Lady from Dubuque, The Man Who Had Three Arms, and Malcolm, nothing he wrote would have been advertised as “Edward Albee’s ——,” as this play is. (“Occupant” is a sign the dying Nevelson had placed outside her hospital door to stymie streams of visitors.)

There are other parallels. Nevelson battled alcoholism, as Albee did, and both were bedeviled by parental issues. On her own, Nevelson dealt with an unhappy marriage, an unwanted child who later became a sculptor himself, a series of lovers, and a struggle to be recognized as a woman in a man’s world. “With any luck,” says Nevelson, “you turn into whoever you want to be, and with even better luck you turn into whoever you should be. No, you got somebody in you right from the start, and if you’re lucky you figure out who it is and you become it.”

The reinvention of oneself is a significant American preoccupation, and the artist who fights through pain and childhood misery to follow his dream is a theme that echoes throughout American drama, from The Glass Menagerie to A Chorus Line. Albee is free to rework those themes, but he hasn’t done enough to spruce up their overfamiliarity.

In Occupant, Nevelson’s interviewer (Larry Bryggman, playing the Man) knows all about her, and his measured, chronological review of her life has few sparks, unless you count Nevelson’s periodic exasperation at the Man’s assertions, and his occasional fluster at discovering something he didn’t know. Albee supplies a few low-intensity flourishes: Nevelson (Mercedes Ruehl), for instance, is giving the interview post mortem. She is astonished that the Man must explain who she is―it’s only 20 years since she died, after all. “You have to introduce me?” she asks. “People don’t know who I am?” Man: “People who knew you know you.” The point—that she’s vain, that her image as an outrageously clad Artist (with a capital A) is more famous than her work—registers quickly, but the give-and-take goes on and on, as if it were a plot twist on the order of Hedda Gabler’s burning Lovborg’s manuscript.

Director Pam MacKinnon has gotten two outstanding performances from Ruehl and Bryggman. The former creates a fascinating monstre sacré: a vain, assertive, querulous egoist. The flashy clothes are there, down to double-layered sable eyelashes. (Ruehl’s natural contribution is strikingly long fingers, like those of a basketball player, which Nevelson was as a teenager.) Designer Jane Greenwood has dressed Ruehl in wildly colorful clothing, a Nevelson trademark, accessorized with a large metal necklace that looks like an ancient key that Indiana Jones would use to unlock a subterranean chamber. Bryggman’s natty interviewer, for his part, communes with the audience through sly glances and skeptical looks, and he baits Nevelson cunningly.

Even though the actors help offset the dryness of the presentation, MacKinnon has treated the text with excessive deference. For example, early on the Man says, “No offence” and Nevelson responds, “None taken. Is that what they say… none taken?” Later, reaching for a word, she asks, “You know you’ll never fit in; you know you’ll always be a … an exotic, is that the word?”

Now, a woman of 88 who lived in the United States from age 6 would know the simple idioms of a language she's been speaking all that time. She would know what “exotic” means, so Nevelson's uncertainty makes little sense. But it serves to keep the ball rolling, so to speak, because Albee's play has few dramatic thrills or surprises, merely points of interest. As heartfelt as the author's admiration for Nevelson is, Occupant is likely to please only art enthusiasts and his own devotees.

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