Mercedes Ruehl and Larry Bryggman
in Edward Albee's Occupant
(© Carol Rosegg)
Mercedes Ruehl and Larry Bryggman
in Edward Albee's Occupant
(© Carol Rosegg)
Anyone casting around for the point behind Edward Albee's Occupant, the unsatisfactory bio-play about sculptor Louise Nevelson now getting its official world premiere at the Signature Theater (after an aborted run some years back with Anne Bancroft), may want to consider this: The two-act grilling of Nevelson (Mercedes Ruehl) by an unnamed interviewer (Larry Bryggman) may be the author's way of expressing disdain for the inaccuracies inherent in the interview process and how he's had to suffer them during his remarkable career.

It's more likely, however, that Albee would insist he's getting at how any artist finds his or her voice. "All of a sudden I had become me," is how Nevelson -- who first enters in a robe, wide-brimmed black hat and elaborate metal necklace that costumer Jane Greenwood has picked to match the artist's idiosyncratic dress code -- describes this turning point in her life. But before she gets to that triumphant declaration, long stretches of stage time have headed in other, less fruitful directions.

The play begins with the interviewer carrying a binder in the same way Ralph Edwards did on the old This is Your Life television series. Yet, almost instantly, artist and questioner begin to squabble over how Nevelson -- whose fame may have faded since her 1988 death -- should be described to the audience. From there, the interviewer begins an essentially chronological review of Nevelson's life, which began when she was Leah Berliawsky, a Russian shtetl Jew. In time, more information is coaxed out of Nevelson about her ill-advised and self-promoting marriage to Charles Nevelson, her poor parenting of son Mike, her reputed promiscuity, her travels abroad, and, eventually, her sculptures.

Anything revealed of genuine interest about Nevelson is intermittent, due primarily to the interviewer's questionable technique, which consists of mocking -- often with sarcastic asides -- Nevelson's memory and intentions. At one point, he even says of her accounts: "They may be true, but if you've got someone you know makes things up and admits to it, is probably proud of it, well, then, the weirdest thing happens."

Occupant -- which is how Nevelson identified herself in her terminal hospital stay -- finally flares into life late in the second act, when the interviewer ceases pressing for dirt like a relentless Hollywood gossip columnist and cajoles Nevelson into talking about her acclaimed artworks. Moving center stage to give what she calls "a lecture," she expounds on her love of wood and amassing discarded pieces that she constructed into fascinating rectangles within rectangles and painted all-black, all-white or all-gold. (The "lecture" is accompanied by a coup de theatre that designer Jones has concocted in tribute. And thank providence for it.)

Under Pam MacKinnon's direction, Ruehl, who played art lover and patron Peggy Guggenheim a few years ago, carries off the appropriately outlandish costuming, down to the heavy two pairs of eyelashes. More important, she once again displays her mighty presence. (Only her Bronx-Brooklyn accent strikes a false note). Assessing the usually terrific Bryggman is trickier, since he strides about the stage with an annoying cockiness, and smirks and snickers so consistently that no spectator could be chastised for shouting: "Cut it out!"

As for the lauded playwright, he may have victimized himself by allowing the play to be billed as Edward Albee's Occupant. Does this mean someone or something has been occupying Albee's head while he was preparing this piece? If so, it's an occupant who doesn't have enough to say.