Have you ever heard of an 11 o'clock number that sets the show back? Well, the iconic Edward Albee may have blazed a trail. Three-quarters through Occupant, sculptor Louise Nevelson (Mercedes Ruehl) suddenly starts actually talking like an artist, about wood, and-abracadabra- abruptly is unveiled set designer Christine Jone's uncanny backdrop simulation of the sculptor's pathbreaking Sky Cathedral. But the audience reaction to this trompe l'oeil coup de theatre, rather than oohs and aahs, is... nil, ho-hum,or, maybe, puzzlement. Why? Because the play has until then only fleetingly dramatized the inner processes of art-making that drove Nevelson's behavior, deferring to the apparently sexier subject of her personality and boho-Horatio Alger story.
The playwright can't seem to decide whether this play is about art, outsized personality, or marketing (why Edward Albee's Occupant?). Occupant opens with a posthumous Nevelson introduced by The Man (Larry Bryggman), who explains to the audience who Nevelson (1899-1988) was with such ludicrous dumbing-down that Albee (or director Pam MacKinnon) must assume that even educated theatergoers are by now as stultified as the philistines. Bryggman, normally a fine actor, plays the interviewer like a smarmy, faux-intelligent host of a 3 a.m. TV infomercial preaching to half-educated rubes, and does so without a trace of saving irony. (A trusted friend who saw both the short-lived 2002 Signature production with Anne Bancroft and this production reports that Neal Huff in 2002 played Bryggman's role as Nevelson's intimate and confidante- far more flattering to the play, she said.)
Ruehl's Nevelson fascinates: she's vulgar and earthy, yet regal and elusive. Ruehl is a master of underplayed acting-is reacting- even her thinking between the beats is subtly acted. So spontaneous and in the moment is her characterization, you feel you never quite know what Nevelson is going to say next. One of the strongest reaction performances I ever saw in the theater was octogenarian Judith Lowry as the silent boarder in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Lowry's mute reactions to every line of the other actors' dialogue spoke volumes and drew your eye. Ruehl rivals that here- your eye stays magnetized on her during Bryggman's dialogue, and not because of her fake eyelashes or Jane Greenwood's Nevelsonianly outré costume. Vocally, Ruehl renders Nevelson in gruff ethnic New Yorkese rather than the flat Maine tones of the real-life Nevelson's speech. (Today many of the Gen Xers profiled in Time Out NY's weekly Public Eye dress like Louise Nevelson.)
Nevelson was not a verbal, articulate woman but one who spoke intuitively of her art-making in gnomic, cryptic phrases. She did not achieve a tipping point as an artist until she was almost 60- then within ten years she became world-famous and financially set for life. (Nevelson shared some traits with prickly Robert Frost, another New Englander who won recognition late.) Albee knew Nevelson for many years, and here, though the question and answer format is dramaturgically straitening, he details her colorful life, real and self-invented, but touches only lightly on her actual art-making experiences, as if the fraught, hard-edge-making journey to becoming herself was more about doing it my way than about finding her true muse after protracted experimentation. In the end you come away feeling that the cult of celebrity has been saluted somewhat more than the religion of art.
I am an unstinting admirer of Albee's art. Three Tall Women is for me a masterpiece. But Occupant is i