“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” the interviewer begins genially, indicating a figure now entering dramatically from the wings. “The great American sculptor … Louise Nevelson.”
The audience applauds as if on cue. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Nevelson says. She’s alive?! You can’t tell the difference. You’re not meant to. Nevelson is being expertly impersonated by Mercedes Ruehl, who’s wearing a sort of kimono, sculptural necklace and trademark sable eyelashes (a set on each eye, lower and upper).
Where are we?
We’re in the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street. But we could be in a TV studio; the ingratiating interviewer could be James Lipton; the audience could be some kind of adoring, curious fan club; and, yes, Louise Nevelson could be alive and very well.
However, we’ve gathered to meet the famous American sculptress, who’s dead. And the playwright, Edward Albee, has that covered. (Sort of.) “I’ve never interviewed someone who is dead before,” the interviewer says coyly at the start.
“Yeah? Well, I haven’t been interviewed since I’m dead,” replies Nevelson (1899–1988).
May it never happen to Edward Albee.
WE CAN AT LEAST say about Occupant, Mr. Albee’s surprisingly mediocre play about his friend Nevelson, that it invents a new form of celebrity journalism. Call it a monodrama with assistant.
Guided tours of a famous person’s life are traditionally solo—the stage lives of Golda Meir and Diana Vreeland, and Thurgood, currently on Broadway starring Laurence Fishburne—are examples of the cookie-cutter genre that come to mind. I seem to recall a Shakespeare impersonator, too. (“And then I wrote Hamlet …”)
But Mr. Albee has changed the unwritten rules. His assistant to the star—known as Man (played by the affable Larry Bryggman)—comes onstage carrying a file as if hosting This Is Your Life. He’s the interviewer.
Mr. Albee is the last person I’d have imagined writing a hagiography of an already celebrated life. (The much publicized and interviewed Nevelson is the subject of two biographies.) Throughout his long career, the still productive playwright, who turned 80 this year, has resisted gossipy interviews in defense of himself and a certain mystery. Like many artists, he guards against his work being pinned down by the personal and the mundane. (The drama critic Mel Gussow—who was also a friend of Mr. Albee’s—nevertheless wrote a fine biography of him in 1999.)
Yet here comes our ingratiating host and Nevelson’s interviewer in Occupant—which had an aborted production in 2002 starring Anne Bancroft—to cajole and insinuate, trying to prompt Nevelson into telling all.
“Wasn’t there a problem with the engagement ring?” he asks. “Tell me about it.…” “And your whole life changed.…” “So, you did get married.…” “And so you were going to have a baby.…” “And then?” “So! You had your nervous breakdown.…”
None of this helps the monodrama’s predictably hackneyed form. At best, the wincing device of the interviewer is clumsy; at worst, it’s Mr. Albee’s unconscious revenge against nosey interviewers. In the laborious cat-and-mouse game that takes place with the reluctant Nevelson, the interviewer reveals himself to be surprisingly lousy at his job. He’s an obsequious feed who seems a bit dim. He repeats questions pointlessly; he meanders; he gets confused; he doesn’t follow up; and, crucially, he reveals no new information about Nevelson.
This is a man without a past or future. “Who is this guy?” the exasperated Nevelson complains about him to the audience at one low point. You wish Occupant’s befuddled interviewer would just go away and let her get on with it.
THE IRONY IS that Mr. Albee did once interview Nevelson formally for one and a half hours (about the length of this play). Conscientiously, he used a tape recorder, but when he got home and played the interview back, there was nothing on the tapes. He put it down philosophically to Nevelson’s flair for witchcraft.