New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Edward Albee's Occupant"
Signature Theatre, Manhattan

Whatever else Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) may be—famed sculptor, celebrity, wayward soul, flamboyant personality—she is Jewish. Make no mistake about that. She herself makes it clear—and particularly in the current Edward Albee play, recently opened off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre. (“Yeah, “I’m Jewish,” she says with a shrug, and speaking of her family, “We spoke Yiddish.”)

Albee, her one-time friend and neighbor, has long been fascinated with her, and is now paying tribute. Though the play puts Albee in the forefront with its title—“Edward Albee’s Occupant,” it is in fact all about Nevelson. It is Albee’s attempt to explain her, understand her, follow her artistic development.

Unfortunately Albee succeeds neither in this respect nor in creating a play. Using an interview format, he places two actors on stage—the excellent Mercedes Ruehl as Nevelson and the very competent Larry Bryggman as her interviewer (identified only as The Man). Ruehl, sporting the fake sable eyelashes, the colorful silk caftan, the scarf, the outlandish feathered hat (all Nevelson trademarks), comes on vibrantly. And Bryggman, as foil for Ruehl, delivers an appealing performance.

Not surprisingly this Nevelson gives The Man a hard time. If she bothers to reply at all, she is likely to do so with a shrug, a bitter outburst, a lie. The first act continues in this fashion ad nauseum, offering little information. Albee, for unknown reasons, has dated the piece some years after her death. It is only in the second act, when the two get down to business that some of the biographical material emerges.

Whatever Albee has written, it is not a play. The opportunity for conflict between the well-meaning, seasoned interviewer and his reluctant subject never reaches a boiling point. Her strong personality could have been the stone wall against which he could have thrown himself. But the play’s only real excitement occurs when a backdrop featuring Nevelson’s work comes to life.

The Nevelson story cries out to be told on stage. And what better narrator than a noted contemporary playwright? But “Edward Albee’s Occupant” is decidedly disappointing, despite the credentials of the author and potential of his subject.

As to that story, it is known that Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, came to this country as child, and settled with her family in Rockland, Maine. There, as an outsider in a WASP community, it was inevitable that she turn inward, ultimately seeking art as a way of coping with life. But that, apparently, came late, after an unhappy marriage, the birth of a son, a mental breakdown, an alcoholic problem. In mid-life she ran to Europe, to study art with Hans Hoffman, but was thrown out of his class for lack of talent, as he saw it.

So much for facts. Details of her life are hard for any one to discover, since Nevelson invented herself as she went along. But this much is true. In mid-life she discovered the use of wood, the urge to collect detritus, the inspiration ultimately to forge it all into single, brilliant, breath-taking works of art. In later life, her star rose steadily, due possibly to her flamboyant personality, but certainly to her art.

We can only hope that one day the real Louise Nevelson on-stage drama will be written.

-- Irene Backalenick
June 13, 2008

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