“It’s not the person,” cries the sculptor Louise Nevelson (Susan Rome) in Edward Albee’s Occupant, “It’s the work they do!”
Would be it that Albee had heeded his character’s advice. Then we might have had a gripping, insightful drama about the sculptor and her work — some of the most significant American sculpture done in the second half of the twentieth century. Instead, we have a gossipy account of how a woman drank and fornicated her way through most of her existence, punctuated by extended periods of depression, before suddenly discovering her life’s mission by finding some discarded wood on the street, taking it back to her studio, and making art.
The revelations come courtesy of Occupant, a post-mortem bioplay, in which an interlocutor (Jonathan David Martin) turned inquisitor takes Nevelson through her adventuresome life, from her birth in what is now Ukraine to her settlement, at four and a half or six, in Rockland, Maine. Her father works his way to prosperity; the family is assimilated, or not — accounts vary, and Louise is an unreliable narrator. Louise gets a job at a local law office and there meets a member of the Nevelson family. He’s married, but eventually she finds a member of the Nevelson family who is not, and she marries him, for money. Unhappiness ensues. The first Act ends.
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In the lobby, I overhear a patron complain: “I’m attending a lecture.” But I would have welcomed a lecture, if it would be given over to an understanding of Nevelson’s art. What I’m hearing instead is the Real Housewives of Rockland, Maine and New York City.
H.L. Mencken, after approving his obituary for the Baltimore Sun, was asked by the obituary-writer how he should cover the rest of Mencken’s life. “Just write, ‘as he got older he got worse,'” Mencken replied. This thought apparently guided Albee’s composition of the second Act.
Nevelson takes classes in singing and piano and painting and sculpture, and shops a great deal. She knows she is destined to be a great artist, but not in what field. She has a son, who she studiously ignores, and as the Nevelson fortune shrivels in the Great Depression, she falls out of love with her husband, who is fat and bald (hey!) and short, and thus uninteresting. She goes to Berlin to study with an artist who eventually tells her she has no talent; she bums around Europe until the money runs out, and then returns to New York to study acting. She divorces her husband and lives off the money her mother doles out. She has showings, but nobody buys her stuff. And then one day — eureka.
Albee gives us these details in question-and-answer format. Nevelson is a reluctant witness, but Martin’s interviewer cuts through her defenses like an experienced trial lawyer. On the interviewer’s two obsessions — her drinking and her sex life — she is cagey; she denies that she had a drinking problem but cops to hanging out with people who did (she admired their comradery), she admits to having a good sex life but refuses to share the details. As you’d expect in an Albee play, the dialogue is always clever and sometimes sizzling, and Martin and Rome go to it with a will.
Rome is particularly convincing as Nevelson, combining the voice of a New Yorker and a Russian Jew with coy undertones of Mae West. Martin plays his character as an academic who has aspirations to be an investigative reporter, which might be a good rough description of a historian.
Edward Albee’s Occupant closes December 8, 2019. Details and tickets
What we don’t learn is how she could do something like the photo below which you could see yourself by going to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, at 1250 New York Avenue NW. How did this vision come to her? What did she see? What was the journey which blew open the doors of perception for her?
Albee touches on a couple of inspirations — her encounter with Japanese Noh robes; her discovery of African masks — but his treatment is so brief and perfunctory that we are tempted to see her as a dilettante, who made dramatic gestures toward art between bouts of sex, drinking and lying in bed.
The sad thing is that Nevelson was, in real life, more than that. She was a working artist, who for many years lived in poverty so that she could do the thing she loved. She exhibited in the early 1930s; she taught painting under a WPA program; she won a sculpture competition in 1936, at age 37; she made Arts Digest in 1943 and was in a Peggy Guggenheim exhibition in the same year. She continued to grow in both skill and stature during the fifties and sixties. Her fame was not because she suddenly discovered discarded wood and decided to make a career about it (in fact, her father owned a lumberyard and she made things out of wood as a child); she worked at it, earned it, and deserved it. This is a harder story to tell than one about a bad marriage, a ruined relationship with her child, and drinking and sex, but if anyone had the chops to tell it, it was Edward Albee. He didn’t do it.
Some day, I hope, some playwright will do a post-mortem interview with Edward Albee. If so, I pray that the playwright will focus not on Albee’s colorful life but on the artist’s journey that brought him to Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, Seascape, The Goat or Who is Sylvia and the rest of his magnificent oeuvre. As for Louise Nevelson, alas, her story remains to be told.
Occupant by Edward Albee, directed by Aaron Posner, featuring Jonathan David Martin and Susan Rome . Scenic and costume design: Nephelie Andonyasis . Lighting design: Jesse Belsky . Projection design: Devin Kinch . Props design: Pam Weiner . Stage manager: Anthony O. Bullock, assisted by Tyler Metteer and Rebecca Talisman . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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