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A CurtainUp Review

Woman Before a Glass
(A Triptych in Four Parts),

What I'm trying to preserve here is not just a random group of pictures that can be scattered to the ends of the earth, but a cohesive whole which can only exist here in my palazzo; something quite fragile, ephemeral: a reflection of one woman's dedication to the art of her time.
--- Peggy Guggenheim explaining why her collection must be kept together.
  Mercedes Ruehl
Mercedes Ruehl
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
A new play starring Mercedes Ruehl, an actress who knows how to make you laugh and cry!. . .  That play about just the sort of volatile character Ruehl does so well -- Peggy Guggenheim (1898 - 1979), the ultimate supporter and lover of art (and artists) ! . . .  An A+ production team!

High expectations in order? You bet. Lanie Robertson's Woman Before a Glass which just opened at the Promenade Theater gave every indication that it could sidestep the biographical solo play's tendency to make one yearn for at least one other actor on stage.

I arrived at the theater with memories of Ruehl's most recent unforgettable performance as the at first loving and then ferociously wrathful wife in The Goat and her earlier triumphs in the original Lost in Yonkers and the 1995 revival of The Rose Tattoo in mind. My hopes were high for another Barrymore (Christopher Plummer's solo drama about the legendary actor) or Full Gallop (Mary Louise Wilson's full-bodied portrait of Diana Vreeland). Alas, life is filled with disappointments and that includes plays that don't deliver the big bang the advance press promises.

Even the talented and magnetic Ms Ruehl can't overcome the shortcomings of Robertson's script and Casey Child's awkward direction. As is common with this genre, the audience members and people at the other end of a telephone line or in an off-stage room are the other characters. This is done here with minimal finesse. Not content with the favorite solo play prop, the telephone, the director has Ms. Ruehl running back and forth between two phones. Childs' also directed Thomas Lynch to create a set that upstages the star. There's no question that Lynch has created a stunning evocation of the art Guggenheim espoused and the flavor of her Venetian palazzo. However, a less showy set might have left room for some projections which seem sorely needed to make this less a collage of bits and pieces collected from in print materials about the play's subject and her collection.

For all the information packed into this long ninety minutes, the playwright never manages to clarify Guggenheim's masochistic tendencies, her relationship with her suicidal daughter and, most importantly, how she developed her savvy collector's eye. Guggenheim-cum-Ruehl tosses off that she favored Renaissance art until Samuel Beckett told her that if she didn't know what to do with her money, she should buy modern art "because it's living." However, typical of Robertson's tabloid teaser approach, this is an aside to her more detailed bed-and-Beckett recollections.

To be sure, no play about Guggenheim would be either complete or interesting without addressing her flamboyant personality and her penchant for bedding as well as financially nurturing artists. Biographer Mary V. Dearburn's biography acknowledged this with her sly double entendre title, Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim (though she too was criticized for allowing salacious details and talk about the famously bulbous nose to sometimes win out over more substantive character and art analysis). The metaphoric self-appraisal prompting the more pretentious Woman Before a Glass title is again more aptly realized by set designer Lynch than the playwright.

The wealth of material to be mined has not been crafted into more than a fragmentary patchwork. It's as if Robertson was loathe to omit anything -- the tragedy of the father who perished on the Titanic, two failed marriages, the relationships with writers and artists whose work she collected. The collected artists included, to name just a few: Ernst (whom she married and divorced), Klee, Pollack, Miro, Chagall, DeKooning, Dali, Leger, Picasso, Duchamp, Braque, Rothko, Motherwell. All are touched on but none with any real depth.

Part of the trouble is that there really is no plot arc of any kind here, just four leisurely scenes (1962, 1964, 1967, 1969). The only thing resembling a crisis to be resolved is Guggenheim's quest for a proper home for "her children " which is how she refers to her collection. Though several years apart, these scenes comprise one long string of reminiscences and comments about famous artists, lovers and relatives (the reference to her Uncle Guggenheim's New York museum, which eventually did get the collection, as a big parking garage elicited the biggest and longest laugh).

To get things going, Ruehl is sent on stage with an armful of designer clothes in order to find something to wear for an impending televised party to be attended by Italy's president. The clothes and the anecdotes about each are fun -- but hardly warrant the time expended on this circa Guggenheim history of designer fashions. Neither is her rant against a maid who chose this time to see her new grandchild a particularly auspicious way to establish the narrator's own maternal shortcomings.

Ms. Ruehl gives her all to what should be a fascinating portrait, but despite her best efforts it never jelled for me -- or for the fair number of audience members who seemed to be catching an afternoon nap at the matinee I attended. In fairness to the play, the exit remarks were not all negative, with one intelligent looking and smartly attired woman declaring "The best thing I've seen. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!"

Both the above-mentioned, generally well regarded 2004 biography and Guggenheim's own less critically lauded autobiography are available at our bookstore:
Mistress of Modernism : The Life of Peggy Guggenheim by Mary V. Dearborn

Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict by Peggy Guggenheim

Woman Before A Glass
(A Triptych in Four Parts)

Written by Lanie Robertson
Directed by Casey Childs
Cast: Mercedes Ruehl
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Costume Design: Willa Kim
Lighting Design: Phil Monat
Sound Design & Original Music: David Van Tieghem
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.
Promenade, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, (212) 239-6200.
From 2/17/05; opening 3/10/05. Tickets: $66.25
Last performance, 6/12/05
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 7th matinee press performance
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