Mercedes Ruehl in Woman Before a Glass(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Mercedes Ruehl in Woman Before a Glass
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Mercedes Ruehl, who may be the closest thing we have to an American Anna Magnani (you know, the life force thing), has a bang-up time impersonating art collector Peggy Guggenheim in Lanie Robertson's Woman Before a Glass. The big-hearted, big-boned Ruehl is forceful and cheerfully vulgar from the first moment she arrives, berating a maid and throwing a heap of wardrobe about. She identifies the frocks as a Vionnet, a Chanel, a Schiaparelli, and an armful of other recognizable names. Costumer Willa Kim has done her homework: The filmsy dress Ruehl wears (noticeably without brassiere), and which she decides she'll keep on to welcome Italy's president, is modeled with exactitude after a Fortuny creation that shows up in many photographs of Guggenheim.

The heiress -- whose father went down with the Titanic and took much of his share of the Guggenheim fortune with him -- spent the last decades of her life swanning about a Venetian palazzo, Venier dei Leoni. That's the Grand Canal spot where paintings and sculptures by almost every great artist of the first half of the 20th century crowded the walls and Lhasa apsos scampered across the floors. Set designer Thomas Lynch has chosen not to recreate the one-story building and instead has constructed an abstract environment. Doesn't that make great sense? After all, Guggenheim lived amid abstract art as surely as she lived in standard rooms. So a hanging of squiggly metal lines has pride of place on Lynch's jazzy set, which also features a mural that brings to mind drip-obsessed Jackson Pollock, whom Guggenheim sent a monthly stipend. (Actually, the painting more closely resembles the output of another Guggenheim fave, William Baziotes.)

The sumptuous look of Woman Before a Glass (a title perhaps meant to conjure mid-period Picasso) is further enhanced by Phil Monat's lighting and David Van Tieghem's sound and original music. But the creative team's work never swamps Ruehl, who knows how to dominate a stage, particularly when playing a woman who dominated the 20th century art world because she supported artists about whom others remained skeptical. How skeptical? When Guggenheim asked to store her collection at the Louvre during World War II, she was told that she owned nothing of value; when Bernard Berenson threatened to visit Venier dei Leoni, he turned back at the sight of the Marino Marini man-on-horse sculpture guarding the gate with penis erect.

But Guggenheim persevered, and that perseverance is trotted out along with her strong sex drive by dramatist Robertson, who calls his 90-minute monologue "a triptych in four parts." The active Guggenheim libido is something about which anyone who knew her or her reputation was well aware. In addition to putting chunks of her inheritance on the line, Guggenheim frequently put her body on the linen. Besides being married for a few years to Max Ernst, she slept in more beds than MOMA has canvasses -- and she didn't confine herself to painters and sculptors. Guggenheim was also briefly married to Lawrence Vail, who wrote as well as painted. And Robertson has her begin one anecdote by saying, "When I was fucking Samuel Beckett in the '30s..."

Beckett is famous for lines like "I can't go on -- I will go on," but he has nothing on the Peggy Guggenheim depicted here, who does go on about certain subjects. Throughout Robertson's play, Guggenheim throws in references to her many lovers, to her burgeoning collection, to the galleries she founded and in which she introduced otherwise unheralded artists. She tells lots of stories -- one about almost being carted away by Nazi soldiers in Marseille, another about arriving in America with rolled-up masterpieces and being told "to my face that modern art can only be loved by Jews." She frequently addresses her daughter Pegeen and eventually refers to the young woman's death, the circumstances of which remain unclear.

Mercedes Ruehl in Woman Before a Glass(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Mercedes Ruehl in Woman Before a Glass
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
But, intriguing and lively as Guggenheim's chatter is, that's all it is. Woman Before a Glass, directed vigorously by Casey Childs, offers only a glimpse of a fascinating character. Mentioning her marriages, Guggenheim exclaims: "The less said about Lawrence Vail and Max Ernst the better." Well, no; the more said, the better! The more said about anything that takes Guggenheim beyond the fabulous eccentric she certainly was, the better. The drawback of Woman Before a Glass and of other solo pieces like it is that they're cursory illustrations. What's offered here doesn't go much past, say, the casual visits that Edward R. Murrow used to make on Person to Person. The play seems like a preview of a coming attraction, but the attraction never arrives.

When I was in Venice during the summer of 1962, I went to the Venier dei Leoni. While I was ambling through the public rooms, Peggy Guggenheim appeared and struck up a conversation. Though I only vaguely recall what she said, I do remember that she was trailed everywhere by her Lhasa apsos; she talked to them, chastised them, held them two at a time. Because her dogs were such a part of her life, any portrait of her without them lacks a crucial element. For understandable reasons, there are no dogs in Woman Before a Glass, but it's a serious loss. Their absence is yet another detraction in a theater piece that's no more complete than a Picasso portrait without two eyes on the same side of the face.