by John Stoltenberg
“True if interesting” is Louise Nevelson’s byword in Occupant, Edward Albee’s witty and wise bioplay about the famous sculptor. She was quite the character. For Nevelson, in the hagiography according to Albee, truth was relative to the attention it could attract. Facts for Nevelson were not carved in stone but malleable and assemblable as if wood. Or so Albee would have us believe.
In the first-rate production directed by Aaron Posner now at Theater J, we watch fascinated as one great artist pays tribute to another, warts and all. How did Nevelson become who she became? That’s the hook. But also, underneath: How is Albee’s retelling of her life and work refracted by his own?
Is this man’s admiring portrait of this woman authenticatable? Maybe, maybe not. Who’s to say? And how Albee-ish is that?
Nevelson was in life a tall woman such as would have interested him (Cf. his play about three of them). She had a son to whom she was a rotten mother (Albee could relate). She had a youthful infatuation with a beautiful blue-eyed boy (ditto). And Nevelson and Albee were in fact friends.
Nevelson, despite misogynist carping from critics, achieved stature in the art world rarely accorded artists of her sex. She did not do this in sisterly solidarity (she was no proto Guerilla Girl), but by gosh she did it. And Albee, who was not known for feminist leanings, has set about telling that story. As only he can.
The dramatic conceit in Occupant is that the octogenarian Nevelson, who has been dead for 31 years, is being interviewed on this stage in the present moment by a pleasant unnamed man. For two acts he questions her, talking her through her life story, amused by her dry humor, bemused by her quirks, impressed with her grit, trying to tease out the truth.
In less capable hands the part of this nosey nudnik could quickly get on one’s nerves—not only Louise Nevelson’s (as it is scripted to) but also ours (which would not be good). Happily, Jonathan David Martin brings to the role of The Man such wry charm, boyish zest, and tweedy warmth we are won over immediately and for keeps. His wonderful portrayal is reminiscent of the TV talk show host Dick Cavett in his younger years. Indeed if this incessantly inquisitive character as played by Martin had his own celebrity-interview vlog, one can easily imagine how watchable it would be and how viral it could go.
Susan Rome as Louise Nevelson commands the stage with a spontaneity, grandiosity, and luminosity that would make Auntie Mame and Mama Rose consider retirement. Wearing Nevelson’s trademark sable eyelashes, big beads, and fabulously multipattern smock and slacks, Rome parades the stage, cracks asides, winks and smirks, claps her hands, rolls her eyes, sticks it to The Man, in all embodying to the hilt the artist’s defiant self-chosen self. “Be yourself; be only yourself,” she says. Her mantra.
When Nevelson speaks of not fitting in so she made everything fit her, when she protests the possession that comes with marriage, when she jokes that “if you say things enough people believe it,” when she mockingly mimics being bounced up and down by her husband during sex, when at last she stands triumphant in the midst of her towering artwork—Rome entirely owns the character, inspires esteem, and models a message of fierce female determination to live and create on her own terms.
That empowering message flows like a raging rapids through the play, and Albee has given Nevelson eloquent words to express it, such as this speech near the end:
If you finally come into yourself like I did, if you finally know the space you occupy, well, then, you go on. You don’t relax; you don’t bask in it…You work harder than ever. You turn the world into one huge Nevelson. It was fucking wonderful. And what was wonderful was what I’d always known would happen—deep inside of me—if I could only ever find it, if I could only hang on.
Together Rose and Martin are a terrific team—delightfully testy at first, then taking us steadily into painful territory almost too personal to hear, finally exuding the kind of camaraderie one finds between two fine stand-up comics.
On the back wall, looming over this truth-seeking session, Projection Designer Devin Kinch displays some thirty feet high the classic black-and-white photograph of Nevelson in her later years. As we hear her life story unfold, including its difficult and dark periods, we are thus ever reminded that this is the oversized self that she actualized herself to become.
Scenic Designer Nephelie Andonyadis (who also did the two costumes) provides a calm conversational setting for the first part then delivers at the end an amazing array of knock-off-Nevelson sculptures, which Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky makes seem as monumental as the artist.
Did this man tell this woman’s story faithfully? Maybe. Maybe not. Nevelson’s gone, so she can’t say. Albee too. It’s a perfect Albee-ish perplex. But pay attention to the attention Albee pays her. You will get caught up how he does it. You will be drawn in more and more as her life goes on. And you will leave, after her death, in absolute awe of what she did.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.
Edward Albee’s Occupant plays through December 8, 2019, at Theater J in the newly renovated Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, located inside the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-777-3210 or go online.