Woman Before a Glass
nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
March 5, 2005
In Woman Before A Glass, Lanie Robertson presents a semi-satisfying mixture of biography, celebrity and banality. His subject is Peggy Guggenheim, the rich patron of modern art, a woman who can be given a heaping dose of credit for the careers of painters like Jackson Pollock and Max Ernst. Guggenheim’s life is rife with enviable relationships, and an inspirational love of living artists. It’s a rarity to find someone of her economic class who not only gives to the arts, but does so because of a deep passion that artists are important, and should be fostered for their own sake.
Robertson’s play, a one-woman show, presents her near the end of her life, living in Venice in the mid-1960s, trying to decide what to do with her paintings (which she refers to, aptly, as her “children.”) The play has a promising start, as she goes through a series of dresses, connecting them to her life stories, commenting smartly on their history and their designers. She wails: “You realize there’s a history of 20th century designer gowns right here and I’ve nothing to wear!” From there, it moves freely throughout Guggenheim’s life in four parts, a bit rudderless, even as it is supported by Guggenheim’s compelling character.
Lending no small dose of gravitas to this evening is Mercedes Ruehl, who is simply astonishing to watch. She captures Guggenheim’s flare in her own singular way, effortlessly making business like mixing a drink watchable, and working her way through the text with an honesty and power some could only hope to achieve.
Costumes by Willa Kim also have beautiful authenticity, especially given their prominence in the early narrative. The scenic design by Thomas Lynch is as well-dressed as the star it supports; with colorful textures and hanging designs that allude smartly to the very style of art that was Guggenheim’s passion.
This is an enjoyable evening of theatre, but I endorse it with a bit of trepidation. Robertson’s script lends the most weight to Guggenheim’s personal life, her relationship with her daughter, her reflections on Nazi Germany. While all of this is fair game for a biography, given 90 intermissionless minutes, what makes Guggenheim a stand-out human being of the 20th century is given short shrift. While there are lists of the last names of artists all over the script (“Braque, de Chirico, Rothko, Calder, Bacon, Magritte, Tanguy, Ernst, Miro, DeKoonig, Delvaux,” she intones) and the occasional tidbit of anecdote (attributing her love of these paintings to Samuel Beckett), it’s weighed down with overwrought pop psychology. Perhaps Robertson wants to reveal the tragedies in Guggenheim’s life. All lives have their share of tragedy and all people have some blinders about their family. Few have the premonition, resources, and dedication that Guggenheim displayed for life, the arts, and patronage. There’s an opportunity here to get her unique perspectives on these giants of modern art; but instead we are given mostly light comedy and a heavy dose of psychoanalysis.
The question becomes, what is Robertson trying to do beyond present a place for Ruehl to shine? The slapdash narrative and lack of focus (is Guggenheim responding to her wealth, is she a bad mother, is she simply eccentric, is she responding as a prominent Jew on the heels of World War II?) makes it hard to discern. Which, in the end, pulls the punch from what are clearly intended to be emotionally cathartic moments near the end of the play.
And so Woman Before A Glass provides a fantastic opportunity to see two powerful women in the spotlight: Mercedes Ruehl and Peggy Guggenheim. Ruehl steals the show from underneath Guggenheim, unfortunately, because Robertson fails to give the uninitiated a clear picture of what was special about his subject. Coming into this performance cold (I attended with a friend who was a Peggy Guggenheim enthusiast), I would expect one would glean only the surface of Guggenheim’s importance to our lives today, and the importance of her “children.”