As long as minor celebrities are celebrated for their minor achievements, there will be subjects for minor one-person plays. Take, for example, Peggy Guggenheim. Who? Okay, if you're under a certain age, she might be on the minor side of minor. That, Lanie Robertson would no doubt argue, is precisely why you need to see her new play at the Promenade, Woman Before a Glass.
Let's start methodically. You know the Guggenheim museum in New York? That's not named after Peggy. She was the niece of that Guggenheim (Solomon), and the daughter of the Guggenheim who perished on the Titanic (Benjamin). He was the son of mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim, the most likely reason you even know the name Guggenheim in the first place. But what did Peggy herself do, aside from being born into a famous family? She had an art collection.
Specifically, a modern art collection, perhaps even the modern art collection, which she assembled during the middle years of the 20th century by buying pieces from struggling artists like Picasso, Magritte, and Max Ernst (whom she later married). Is this interesting? Yes. But does it really qualify Guggenheim for a stage biography? More important: Who is likely to care?
Much of Robertson's character writing is detailed and knowing, even humorous, but never does what it must whenever the subject is one of reasonable obscurity to today's audiences: prove that her life story is worth telling. Instead of unveiling the woman, Robertson sticks close to the surface, seldom allowing Peggy much time to delve into issues more significant than who will receive her collection after she dies.
Thus, Woman Before a Glass is a play with "star vehicle" splashed all over it. Any actress brave enough to tackle it would have to make vibrant the interior life of a woman most of us have forgotten (assuming we knew her in the first place), and rise above platitudinous writing to create a person compelling enough to entertain and enlighten us for 90 intermissionless minutes.
As Peggy, Mercedes Ruehl does everything she can. She's talented, with a Tony (for Lost in Yonkers) and an Oscar (for The Fisher King) to prove it, and she made a memorable impression in her last Broadway outing as the put-upon wife in Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. Her brittle manner and measured line delivery in many ways seem an ideal match for the short-tempered, foul-mouthed society matron at the center of this play. And Ruehl does provide the necessary foundation for the show, and digging her fingernails into her portrayal with appreciable conviction; she's committed to this, and that commitment shows.
Unfortunately, so does the strain of having so little content to convey. Ruehl thrusts herself fully into every situation, whether having to babble to assembled onlookers when the Italian president comes to visit (he wants the collection as well), or having to bray into two different phones to frantically find a home for all the artwork while her personal life crumbles around her. Yes, Ruehl can get appreciative applause for donning a bra in full view of the audience, but why should any one-person play require her to?
At least she looks like a model of statuesque elegance in Willa Kim's elaborate costumes, which pay tribute to as many 20th century fashion designers as Peggy's collection did artists. And she never looks lost on Thomas Lynch's intricate surrealistic Venetian palazzo set. But under the bewildered direction of Casey Childs, Ruehl just can't make most of the play's non-events matter.
Until, that is, the play's final segment, when we learn the outcome of Peggy's travails. The scene is set in a gondola on a canal, and is represented entirely through Phil Monat's wistful lighting and a drop-down mirror that displays Peggy's image as it would appear in the tranquil water. The writing, too, takes on an ethereal, almost magical quality that reflects into Guggenheim's soul and reveals a blissful woman underneath. Suddenly, Peggy has been transformed into a warm, smiling woman with a lilting voice. We see what she's accomplished, and it affects us; for the first time it seems that something important really has transpired.
But as thrilling as this moment is, it would be even more effective if any other part of the play possessed even a fraction of this scene's vitality and creativity, and hinted at the appropriateness of Peggy Guggenheim for a stage chronicle. This last scene, the sole true synthesis of multiple theatrical elements, approaches art. The rest of Woman Before a Glass feels like anything but.
Woman Before a Glass