Review: ‘Woman Before a Glass’

Every plain woman who looks into a mirror yearns to see a pretty woman. For all her fabulous clothes and flamboyant style, Peggy Guggenheim was not pretty. But the American heiress so worshiped beauty that she took up residence in the most beautiful city in the world and greedily collected the most beautiful people and artworks of her time.

Every plain woman who looks into a mirror yearns to see a pretty woman. For all her fabulous clothes and flamboyant style, Peggy Guggenheim was not pretty. But the American heiress so worshiped beauty that she took up residence in the most beautiful city in the world and greedily collected the most beautiful people and artworks of her time. She’s still plain Peggy in this adoring portrait by Lanie Robertson. But with Mercedes Ruehl blazing away like a Roman candle in Casey Childs’ stylish production, the show does for Guggenheim what a cruel looking glass never could: It reflects her inner beauty. Soul bared and heart afire, she’s not just pretty, this gawky goose –she’s gorgeous.

When Ruehl strides barefoot onto the stage with murder in her eye and a bundle of designer dresses in her arms, it’s a full blast of the Peggy Guggenheim popularized (and patronized) by the international press — the filthy rich and scandalously vulgar American heiress notorious for buying up art and sleeping with artists. Brandishing her signature sunglasses and screaming at an Italian TV crew patiently waiting for an overdue interview, she launches into a hilarious routine of a woman with hundreds of dresses in her closet and nothing to wear.

Snatching up a gauzy little confection designed by Madeleine Vionnet (beautifully re-created by costumer Willa Kim), she interrupts her shrill diatribe to recall the time in Paris when she wore the dress and danced the night away in the arms of Marcel Duchamp. “Paris was a ghost town,” she says, matter of factly. “The Nazis were only 300 miles away, confiscating and destroying all modern art. … That morning I went right out and bought two of my Kandinskys.”

And that is how it goes, in Robertson’s cunning storytelling style. By the time Peggy has pawed through her wardrobe — hurling each lovely thing to the ground — she has told us volumes about herself and the artists whose work she obsessively collected throughout her lifetime.

Picasso, Braque, de Kooning, Pollack, Chagall, Brancusi, Tanguy, de Chirico, Miro, Klee, Ernst, Bacon — she had the taste, the money and the wits to embrace them all, the abstract impressionists as well as the cubists and surrealists. And if they let her, she would also take them into her bed — all but the pop artists, whose work she loathed.

The wonder of Ruehl is that while she revels in Peggy’s raunchiness, she never vulgarizes her character. Whether she’s bragging about “when I was fucking Samuel Beckett in the ’30s …” or crowing about discovering Jackson Pollack (“unheard of till I gave him enough money every month to quit being a janitor and paint”), Peggy is never held up to ridicule for her earthy appetites.

On the contrary, in Ruehl’s vibrant anecdotal delivery, the woman is respected for her impeccable taste in modern art, admired for her instinctive understanding of its value and celebrated for her lusty appreciation of its beauty.

Rather than softening the enthusiastic, inelegant Peggy, Ruehl plays her as the voracious consumer she was — someone whose desire for beauty was so great, she would devour it if only she could.

Ruehl is also tender with her in those revealing moments when she reaches out for what she can’t have — the beloved father lost on the Titanic; the daughter who committed suicide; the alcoholic writer John Holms, whom she repeatedly calls the only man she really loved. The sense of longing is palpable in Ruehl’s generous perf.

To establish this extraordinary creature in her proper setting, an inspired design team has created a minimalist version of the 18th-century Venetian Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which Guggenheim bought in 1947 to house the amazing collection of modern art she had amassed in Europe during the war.

Thomas Lynch has dressed the stage with a witty nod to the artists Guggenheim admired and championed. A free-form version of the silver “bedhead” Calder designed for her bedroom hangs in midair. The thronelike chair where she held court in the Nasher Sculpture Garden claims center stage. Behind it, the dangling earrings and gaudy chokers she favored are strung like soul-catchers into a Kandinsky-like mobile. And whenever solid surfaces are needed, desks are flown down from the light bridge, like stray pieces from a surrealist painting.

Transforming it all into something magical is the heroic lighting scheme of Phil Monat, who applies color like paint on canvas. The back wall serves as a window on the shifting play of Venice’s molten sunlight and dancing waters. The floor of the palazzo is splashed with gemstone colors, as if applied by Pollack. And in the mystical final scene, when the aging heroine glides along the canalazzo in her private gondola, she is bathed in the pulsing green reflections of the water — a classic beauty at last in the elegant white Fortuny gown that makes her look “like a vestal fucking virgin.”

Woman Before a Glass

Promenade; 399 seats; $66.25 top

Production

A Susan Quint Gallin, Mary Lu Roffe, Debra Black, Maria Cozzi and Morton Swinsky presentation of a play in one act by Lanie Robertson. Directed by Casey Childs.

Creative

Sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Willa Kim; lighting, Phil Monat; original music and sound design, David Van Tieghem; production stage manager, Renee Lutz. Opened March 10, 2005. Reviewed March 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Peggy Guggenheim - Mercedes Ruehl
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