Seen And Heard

Seen Off Broadway: Edward Albee’s Occupant is not your usual sort of bio-play, but then again Albee has never been your usual kind of playwright. For one thing, the subject of the inquiry, sculptor (and Albee friend) Louise Nevelson is dead, and her interviewer, known simply as The Man, is more interested in badgering her than in a garden-variety Q&A. This makes the Signature Theatre Company production somewhat frustrating, and viewers unfamiliar with the artist (who died in 1988) are advised to read the “Signature Edition” newsletter available in the lobby. On the other hand, the information does come out, if in a roundabout fashion, and there is plenty of time to consider why the elusive Albee has structured the show in such a fragmentary, start-and-stop way. Is he parodying the inaccuracies of interviews, which have put him on the spot in the past? The evasiveness of self-mythologizing subjects like the Russian-born Nevelson, the details of whose bohemian life and checkered relationships (a bad marriage, lousy parenting, rumored promiscuity) are pulled from her like teeth?

The second act of the piece, which Signature first staged in an abortive production with Anne Bancroft in 2002, is more forthcoming. “With any luck you turn into whoever you want to be, and with even better luck you turn into whoever you should be,” Nevelson says. “No, you got somebody in you right from the start, and if you're lucky you figure out who it is and you become it.” The revelation of her “occupant” (which is what she insisted the hospital label her doorway as she lay dying) opens the production onto the distinctive art of her wooden rectangles, and an inspiring reveal. We have seen such revelatory stagecraft many times before, but the difficult journey makes set designer Christine Jones’ facsimile of Nevelson’s craft all the more rewarding.

Director Pam MacKinnon, of last season’s superb Albee show Peter and Jerry, has again staged the production simply, with the two sparring performers taking spins around Jones’ Nevelson-style furniture, which are illuminated by David Lander. Mercedes Ruehl is a fine performer and expert Albee interpreter, but I suspect it was Jane Greenwood who helped her find the role, via her extravagant costume: A Nevelson-ian robe, hat and headscarves, and clanking metal necklace, topped with two pairs of false eyelashes (three or more blinded her, she mentions). By contrast, Larry Bryggman, in his regulation suit, is overshadowed, and gives a purposefully indistinct performance—the ice, or, rather, the slush, to Ruehl-as-Nevelson’s fire. There is no sound designer, as Albee and the actors sift through the embers of the sculptor’s life. The show runs through July 13.

Brooke Berman’s Hunting and Gathering was one of last season’s better new plays, and she has returned this season with a new piece for a quartet of actors, A Perfect Couple, which Women’s Expressive Theater (WET) is staging at DR2 through July 12. The perfect couple of the title is Amy (Dana Eskelson) and Isaac (James Waterston), who after 15 years of an on-and-off-again relationship have decided to marry at age 40. To plan the ceremony they have retreated to the country home of Isaac’s flamboyant and much-loved stepmother, where the nuptials will take place. Accompanying them, as usual, is their friend Emma (Annie McNamara), who is proudly single—but the more she says she isn’t the third wheel in the couple’s relationship the more she seems to be just that. The fourth character, twenty-something neighborhood handyman Josh (Elan-Moss Bachrach), comes to mean different things to the others, and our notion of who the “perfect couple” might be, once Amy takes a painful passage in the diary of Isaac’s stepmother to heart.

Berman specializes in comedy-dramas about characters in transition, and has written meaty parts for the ensemble. Or, rather, overwritten—the play tells rather than shows, and the metaphors are sluggishly paced by director Maria Mileaf. But the actors, who are likably vulnerable, and the storyline, which has the ring of truth to it regarding long-term friendships, maintain interest over 90 minutes. As in Hunting and Gathering the frequent scene changes are indicated by intertitles, projected onto Neil Patel’s set, a sky-blue house frame fronted by simple furnishings. Jenny Mannis’ costumes further set the tone of contemporary dissatisfaction (comfortable, but non-commital) and Bart Fasbender effectively pipes in an underlying score. LD Matthew Richards has a pivotal scene, under a starry sky that departs from the rest of the show; once its spell is broken, it’s clear there is no going back to the way things used to be. —Robert Cashill

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