June 7, 2008

The Preoccupations of Albee's "Occupant"

Edward Albee seems to be everywhere you turn these days. For Albee, America’s greatest living playwright, turned 80 in March and everyone has wanted to get in on the celebrating. Second Stage Theatre did so last November when it presented Peter & Jerry, a double bill consisting of The Zoo Story, the first play Albee wrote back in 1958, and Homelife, a prequel that he wrote just a few years ago. In February, the Vineyard Theatre threw a gala in his honor at the Rainbow Room. And a month later, Albee himself directed two of his early one-act plays, The American Dream and The Sandbox, at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Somehow, I missed all of them. Which made me really determined to see the Signature Theatre
Company’s “world premiere” of Occupant, Albee’s tribute to his friend the sculptor Louise Nevelson. I use the quote marks because the play was supposed to premiere at the end of the season Signature devoted to Albee back in 2002. But when Anne Bancroft, who was playing Nevelson, became ill during the previews, the play never officially opened.

I took it as a good omen when Albee walked into the awkwardly-named 10th Avenue restaurant 44 & X Hell's Kitchen (famous for its killer mac and cheese) where my friend Bill and I were having a pre-show dinner before seeing Occupant last week. I had also seen Albee earlier that day when, at Bill’s suggestion, I caught up with an
interview that Charlie Rose had done with him the night before. As I said, he’s turning up everywhere.

Albee’s fellow playwright Terrence McNally and another friend joined him for dinner and although they left before Bill and I did, we later saw them in the lobby of the nearby Peter Norton Space theater talking to friends. As Albee moved away from the group to greet some other people he knew, McNally reassured his companions about the coming evening: “Edward says you don’t have to know anything about Louise Nevelson to enjoy this play. He says you’ll learn something.”

You actually can learn quite a bit since the play is presented as a Charlie Rose-style interview with Nevelson in the afterlife. (Click here to watch a similar interview the real Nevelson gave in 1986, two years before her death at 88.) Mercedes Ruhl has taken on the role and she gives a vivid portrayal of the artist, complete with her trademark colorful headscarves, sable eyelashes and regal feistiness. The always-reliable Larry Bryggman plays the probing interlocuto
r. And during the course of the nearly two hour evening, they talk about how Nevelson immigrated to the U.S. from Czarist Russia as a child, grew up as an outsider in Maine, suffered through an unhappy marriage to a wealthy American businessman and eventually found salvation in art.

I imagine that they're all stories Nevelson told Albee many times over the course of their quarter-century long friendship. But they didn’t quite add up to a play for me. Albee's plays, of course, aren't like other people's plays and are notoriously difficult to parse. And the playwright takes pride in that, telling Charlie Rose that it’s his job to ask questions, not to offer answers. But this time out, he seems to have violated his own dictum, telling us not only what we should think about his friend, but spelling out the connection between artists and their work and their yearning for immortality. “I’m dead 20 years and no one knows who I am?” Nevelson laments at the beginning of Occupant. Nearly two hours later, she confesses that “you get into your 80s, you start thinking about” death.

Perhaps the newly-minted octogenarian is too close to his subject and his theme. He shouldn’t worry, though. Works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, Three Tall Woman and my favorite, The Goat or Who is Sylvia? will ensure that long after he’s gone, people will know who he is and he will continue to occupy a place in the pantheon of the American theater.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

Oh! I'm seeing this in July. I had a Louise Nevlson experience a few months ago when I saw some of her work up close and personal for the first time at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. I love Albee and I too missed the other Albee productions in NYC last year and earlier this year so I wanted to be sure not to miss this one especially. I was already expecting it to be different from his other work simply because of the connection he had with Nevelson.

Anonymous said...

I can’t really comment on any of the shows you write about, simply for the fact that I live in Portugal. But I can surely still enjoy them.

Having been born into the theatre world and having a father who took me to London and NYC – both places where I later got to live – since and early age, just so I could witness some of the greatest on stage, my passion for it is now merely lived through your blog.

And for that I thank you.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for sharing your Nevelson experience, Sarah. I'll be checking your blog to see what you think of Occupant

Cat, special thanks to you for your kind and encouraging words about Broadway & Me. I hope you will continue reading and I hope you will consider sharing a bit of news from time to time about what is going on in the Lisbon theater scene. In the meantime, estou honrado de ter você como um leitor.