Woman Before A Glass
Also see Richard's review of Hamlet
An hour and a half makes a long one-act play, and when that play has a cast of one, and only one character, the task of holding the audience becomes truly herculean. It is a great tribute to the art – and the energy – of the magnificent actress Glynis Bell that there are only a few points during the production of Woman Before a Glass at which things begin to drag. Those moments are certainly not her fault; Mr. Robertson seems content with a verbally and thematically repetitive script which could benefit greatly from the attentions of a ruthless dramaturge.
The woman before the glass is Peggy Guggenheim, who during her long and privileged life collected art and artists with abandon – though never without an eye to her advantage. As the title suggests, this is a portrait of her, not an autobiography. Therein lies the script's second and more damaging weakness. Ms. Guggenheim was to the middle of the last century what Paris Hilton is to the present: a fabulously wealthy (though Robertson has her complain that her poor branch of the Guggenheim family are "only millionaires") and thoroughly amoral dilettante whose pleasant appearance and ability to make herself attractive and useful to people of genuine talent resulted in her becoming famous without any genuine achievement. The fact that Robertson devotes so much space to this portrait suggests that he admires his subject, but his play constantly undercuts any sense that the audience might be developing that this is a woman of substance; the first scene uses her relentless narcissism as the lever for its humor, and later Robertson has her speak quite coldly about "giving" her son to his father as if the child were an object. Even in grief her concern is for herself.
There are promiscuous people – Tennessee Williams comes to mind – whose stories about themselves and their debaucheries are ironic and oddly charming. Peggy Guggenheim – at least, as Robertson sees her – is not such a person. Her adulteries, and her accounts of them, are tawdry. Her only genuine passion (aside from one early lover whom she genuinely mourns) is her collection of paintings and sculptures, which she refers to without a breath of irony as her "kids."
It might be possible to direct this play in such a way as to make Peggy Guggenheim seem as charming and ebullient as (apparently) Robertson intended, but Steve Campo hasn't found such a way, and despite the valiant and technically immaculate work of Miss Bell, certainly among the finest actresses to have graced the stage at the Rep, the evening ends with the uncomfortable sense that she has worked very hard in a lost cause.
Woman Before a Glass continues through April 1 in the Studio Theater at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis; for the box office, call (314) 968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.