Theater Reviews

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Venue: Signature Theatre Company, New York (Through July 6)

The last time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee and Oscar-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl worked together on stage, the result -- "The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?" -- won the Tony for best play and got her a best actress nomination. Fast-forward six years, and Albee has penned "Occupant," a drama about Louise Nevelson with Ruehl as the larger-than-life sculptor.

So, has lightning struck twice? Hardly, though viewers may wish for a bolt of electricity on stage just to liven up this snoozefest.

It's a first-to-last disaster, beginning with an unnamed emcee (Larry Bryggman)CQ walking onto a nearly bare set to tell the audience how nervous he is about interviewing a dead person. The 20-years-deceased Nevelson then joins him, decked out like a Halloween fortune teller in a loud frock, babushka and eyelashes that would make Tammy Faye seem subtle.

The artist, or her ghost, then states that she's always known she was special. Unfortunately, no hint of what made her special is heard or witnessed by viewers over the next two hours.

Instead, what unfolds is a poor man's version of "Inside the Actors Studio"" as the James Lipton wannabe quizzes his subject about her childhood, youthful marriage, love affairs, rivalry with a grown son, decade-long nervous breakdown and -- finally, in the last 15 minutes -- what inspired her art. Even though the interviewer and interviewee adopt an increasingly contentious give-and-take, the result of their banter is as banal as it is yawn-inducing.

Granted, such material seems far more conventional than what Albee, the master of absurdist theater, generally tackles. But that's no excuse for the level of cliche-ridden lines and concepts. For one short detour, it seems as if Albee is mounting a treatise on the nature of truth, but that dissolves before it even takes form.

As for Ruehl, who replaced the late Anne Bancroft, she's never been more mannered, nor lacking in spark and spontaneity. The origin for her accent, which sounds like an awkward mix of Penny Marshall and Sylvester Stallone cadences, is also a mystery; Nevelson was born near Kiev, grew up in Maine, then lived as an adult in New York City. Vocally speaking, Ruehl's version of the sculptor could be from Mars.

One feels sorry only for the usually reliable Bryggman, who has nothing to do but act exasperated once every 10 minutes. Similarly, one can't blame veteran director Pam MacKinnon. Even Cecil B. DeMille couldn't bring any spectacle -- never mind drama -- to this mess.

In fairness, the production has one visually impressive moment. But since it comes almost at the show's finale, it's a classic case of too little, too late. Indeed, "Occupant" proves intriguing only when wondering how such talented people came up with something so devoid of artistic merit.

Playwright: Edward Albee; Director: Pam MacKinnon; Scenic designer: Christine Jones; Costume designer: Jane Greenwood; Lighting designer: David Lander; Cast: Mercedes Ruehl, Larry Bryggman.
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