When one thinks of eyelashes, the first name that probably comes to mind is Tammy Faye Bakker. But a more significant and classier woman who depended on eyelash enhancement to also make a statement was the great sculptor, Louise Nevelson. Not a day went by in her long life that she didn't wear two pairs of silky sable false eyelashes.
"Did you ever wear three," asked The Man. "Yes," she replied, "but I couldn't open my eyes and people thought I was sleeping." This is the breezy, down-to-earth tone of "Occupant," a provocative new play by Edward Albee that is based on conversations he had with the artist during the last 25 years of her life.
The play takes place 20 years after Nevelson's death at 89, and she is being interviewed by The Man. "Are you nervous?," she asks. "A little," he replies. I've never interviewed anyone who's dead before.". Played with subtlety and self-effacing humor by Larry Bryggman, The Man questions and badgers Nevelson in an attempt to get at the essence of who she is. Known for talking about herself without regard to accuracy, making things up because they sounded good, we nonetheless get a slightly fleshed-out skeleton of where she came from and what drove her.
Born Leah Berliawsky in 1899 in a small village outside of Kiev, she immigrated with her family to Rockland, Maine when she was just six years old. Speaking no English, Leah was a lonely child, and yet, she says, she always knew she was special. "Sholom Aleichem held me up when I was an infant and said I was destined for greatness." True? She says so.
At any rate, her mother Americanized her name to Louise, and dressed her to be noticed, which Nevelson continued to do as an adult. "I expected people to look at me," she said, and they did. Her flamboyant costumes, multi-layered eyelashes, and jewelry which echoed her sculptures made her an impressive sight. But like most successful artists, she paid her dues first.
Abandoning her husband and son during the Depression to study art in Germany and find her calling, Nevelson's marriage to the wealthy shipping magnate Charles Nevelson collapsed. "With any luck," she explains, "you turn into whoever you want to be. And if you're really lucky, you turn into whoever you should be." Though she drank, smoked, slept around, and lived in near-poverty for 27 years after her divorce, she finally became Louise Nevelson, the woman she should be.
This dynamic force was chosen by Albee as the subject of his new play for the express purpose of exploring the nature of art and creativity. Her assemblages of found objects and pieces of wood, painted only in black, white, or gold, fill rooms in museums all over the world today, and for Albee, provide the clearest view of the sculptor and her ideas.
Albee believes a piece of work says nothing about the creator, only about the creator's talent: "You don't have to see and hear and know the person to understand the work." In fact, he continues, it sometimes "gets in the way." Surely Albee is talking about himself here as well, but Nevelson agreed. "No one in the wheat fields of Kansas knows me," she points out, "they only know my art.
As interesting and entertaining as "Occupant" is, there has been much criticism of this work: almost all the material can be found in an encyclopedia, there is no Albee voice -- just a regurgitation of conversations he had with the sculptor, Mercedes Ruehl is playing Mercedes Ruehl, The Man is really superfluous -- a one-woman show would have worked, and it feels as if it's been hastily written.
However, "Occupant" is enormously funny and thought-provoking, Ruehl is a joy to watch, The Man is charming, and if you know little about Nevelson, "Occupant" is a painless way to begin your education about this fascinating creature.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus