Review by Polly Wittenberg
The last time we saw Mercedes Ruehl on Broadway in Edward Albeeï¿½s 'Who is Sylvia?', she was a suburban housewife whose life went askew when her husband fell in love with a goat. In Lanie Robertsonï¿½s one-hander, Woman Before a Glass, a portrait of heiress Peggy Guggenheim, Ruehl plays a real ï¿½characterï¿½ who was decidedly more eccentric than her husbands.
Born in New York about the turn of the 20th century into a family of rich industrialists and bankers, Peggy wound up as a doyenne of surrealist and abstract art as she stocked up on the works of many modern masters during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when they were struggling to be recognized. The collection wound up in her palazzo cum museum on the Grand Canal in Venice, which she opened to the public in the 1960s, which was and remains one of the highlights of any trip to that city.
This show opens in the garden of Peggyï¿½s palazzo where, on a terrific set by Thomas Lynch with lighting by Phil Monat, Ruehl is surrounded by a wonderful pseudo-abstract expressionist painting and a pseudo-surrealist sculpture as well as other smaller ï¿½works of artï¿½ along with some hanging furniture that comes in handy in the following scenes.
There the Brooklyn-accented Peggy, clad in a form-fitting designer schmatte and slippers, is going through some old clothes and musing on the various friends, husbands and lovers with whom she shared her money, her finery, and herself. The rest of the evening is a litany of name-dropping some very interesting names such as Jackson Pollock (whom she takes credit for saving from the almshouse), and Sam Beckett (who advised her to buy artists of ï¿½ourï¿½ time even though he didnï¿½t like their work), and Bernard Berenson (himself the subject of a recent London show called The Old Masters). This chitchat with the audience is interwoven with tales of the dysfunctional Guggenheim family, all presented in Peggyï¿½s direct and distinctly earthy way.
Slightly hunched, in a tightly curled brown wig and a series of gorgeous robes by Willa Kim, Ruehl is a perfect embodiment of Peggy. And itï¿½s a good thing that she has an attractive body, because Peggy was definitely proud of hers. Whether she is sneaking a smoke, dressing down the President of Italy or dealing with any of the other trials of Peggyï¿½s not-completely-happy life, Ruehl gives an astonishing performance.
There are a few awkward moments in Woman Before the Glass, which was directed by Casey Childs, such as when Peggy is continually yelling to her silent daughter who is said to be in a bathtub off-stage. For anyone with the least interest in 20th century art or great acting, however, itï¿½s an evening that should not be missed.
PS Thereï¿½s another show about one of Peggy Guggenheimï¿½s best friends, the writer Djuna Barnes, starring Jane Alexander opening at the Lucille Lortel this month. Seems to be a good season for plays about eccentric women of a certain age.
What the critics had to say.....
CHARLES ISHERWOOD of the NEW YORK TIMES says ï¿½Ms. Ruehl, in an unflattering wig and mildly gaudy makeup, gives a vigorous, enjoyably big performance.ï¿½
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "It is hard to resist watching the fearless Mercedes Ruehl ... for 100 enjoyable minutes.ï¿½
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER says "Frankly, it's not much of a play, but Ruehl's spirited performance is certainly something to see. With characteristic actuality of presence, Ruehl breathes considerable vitality and salty life into a slim text."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of Associated Press says "Entertaining if sketchy tabloid portrait. Fortunately, this one-woman show has the divine Mercedes Ruehl at center stage. The actress is tailor-made to play this bawdy, exuberant creature."
ALEXIS GREENE of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER says "Only a tour-de-force performance by Mercedes Ruehl as the unhappy and somewhat pathetic Guggenheim lifts this play beyond triteness into the realm of a moving character study."
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