Monday, July 14, 2008

Edward Albee's Occupant

We went last week to see Edward Albee's Occupant at the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street. The play, which is now closed, starred Mercedes Ruehl as the great artist Louise Nevelson. The Times gave it a good review so I got tickets and I'm very glad I did.

For dinner before the theater I called Le Madeline, a small French restaurant with a garden on Ninth Avenue that's been there forever. The phone message says it is closed, gone, moving somewhere else yet to be announced. No doubt a victim of escalating rent. Will there be nothing charming left on the island of Manhattan? Instead we went to Esca, the Mario Batali seafood restaurant, on 43rd Street. My brother Thom took me there a couple of years ago and I have been dreaming about the spaghetti with lobster and mint (hold the chilies) ever since. I'm happy to report that the dish is still amazing.

On we went down West 42nd Street, the farthest we had ever been, between 10th and 11th Avenue, with huge silver condo skyscrapers rising up all around. Who is going to live in all these high-rise luxury condos? As we walked there I said, "Edward Albee's Occupant is such a strange title for a play about Louise Nevelson. I can never remember it -- it's not intuitive. I wonder why he called it that."

In the play the sculptor Louise Nevelson comes back from the dead to be interviewed by a man played by Larry Bryggman. The play is beautifully written by Mr. Albee and Mercedes Ruehl was fantastic. From our second row seats I couldn't take my eyes off her as she was wrapped up in vividly colored robes and a gigantic necklace and a turban. She wore humongous eyelashes -- "double sable eyelashes" -- which the actress fluttered to dramatic effect. "I dress like me. I am the total of everything I do," she said.

The artist recounts being born in Russia into a Jewish family that moved to Maine. She married Mr. Nevelson and described her upper-middle-class life in New York City as a wife and mother which made her completely miserable. After a "ten-year nervous breakdown," she went to Europe and took art lessons where she was told she had no notable talent. Back in New York it took another twenty-seven years for her to discover herself as an artist and create the huge painted wooden box-like sculptures that came to be recognized as masterpieces of modern art.

She suffered greatly but finally in the end she found herself. Along the way she was inspired and fed by Picasso, the mystics, primitive art. She told a great story about the power of clothes. The Metropolitan Museum showed an exhibition of Japanese robes, and one garment had golden medallions woven onto gold cloth. The robe was so beautiuful that she sat down in front of it and cried, and concluded that life was worth living. "I went home and it gave me a whole new light."

Like Sunday in the Park with George (see below), this play is about the struggle, the process of being an artist. Though it took her many years, Louise Nevelson persisted and didn't give up. "I wanted to grow into being somebody." It took her a long, long time to arrive at the moment when she truly, deeply identified her own unique sculpture, her own singular voice.

She was strong, she was positive, and people around me were nodding. "You're going to be your own special self," she said, "You're going to occupy that space if it kills you."


The Occupant.

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