Friday, January 16, 2009


Death becomes her, the dead person being Louise Nevelson, (played by Kate Alexander) the heroine of Edward Albee's Occupant. Nevelson, for the record, was an avant-garde sculptor, Jewish, a Russian native, equally famous for her seemingly primitive constructions of wood and splashy fashion choices. She's been dead for two decades or so. The first thing she does when she comes back? Agree to an ArtNews style interview. You gotta admire her.

Dead or not, she doesn't take any crap. This is the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, after all? Albee's Nevelson isn't afraid of anybody. In the first act, the interviewer (Patrick Noonan) can barely get a question out. She questions his questions — their assumptions, presumptions, and implied lack of knowledge. She reminds me of every cantankerous interview subject I've ever had.

Albee, of course, is the cantankerous playwright behind it all. He could easily have made this a one-woman play with a Louise Nevelson character supplying biographical nuggests in a narrative thread. The interview format questions biography itself: especially artists' biographies and our urge to nail down living and dead creators into the coffin of a consistent storyline based on unambiguous motivations. Instead, Albee's Nevelson character zips and darts away from the questions like a fox evading the hounds. We see bright flashes of her, but nothing definitive. That's the point.

In the second act, Nevelson seems to calm down and let the interviewer get a word or two in edgewise. Once we know that the facts of her biography are conditional and contradictory, Albee allows the facts emerge. The basic fact: Nevelson achieves success, but late in life. It's a bittersweet victory. In the end, dying of cancer, she has them take down the sign in her hospital room announcing "LOUISE NEVELSON" and replaces it with "OCCUPANT." She returns to the shadows. It's a poignant moment.

Director Susan Greenhill achieves a nice pacing with Albee's lines — which are constantly creating a rhythm, then interrupting it with other rhythms, like waves cancelling each other out in a coffee cup. She pulls it off and makes it sound natural.

Alexander puts in an amazing performance in a very demanding role — I'd say once in a lifetime, but I've seen her do it before. Noonan, as her interviewer, is great too. He's the straight man and the punching bag. Albee's play is not without humor. The joke is on all of us who, like the interviewer, want hard and fast answers. The joke is on him, and he takes it like a man.

The play is a must-see. Along with everything else, it's a fine argument for appreciating the work of great artists while they're still alive.

Through Jan. 31
FST Gompertz Theatre

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