Edward Albee's Occupant

by Harker Jones

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 12, 2018

James Liebman and Martha Hackett in "Edward Albee's Occupant."
James Liebman and Martha Hackett in "Edward Albee's Occupant."  

By all accounts, sculptor Louise Nevelson was a real character with a larger-than-life persona and an existence to match. She was ahead of her time in terms of feminism, sexual liberation and her take on art. Unfortunately, Edward Albee's play chronicling her trajectory arrives in its West Coast premiere lifeless and passive.

The conceit is that a man (James Liebman, credited simply as The Man) is interviewing the once-world-famous Nevelson (Martha Hackett) in the present day, 30 years after her death. She's surprised to find and unwilling to accept that, for as influential as she was, she's basically forgotten now. They quarrel about the truth about certain aspects of her life, facts that she likes to tweak, presumably for dramatic effect. Whether she's lying consciously or just has a faulty memory, who knows. She's dead so how can you fault her?

Born in 1899, she and her family emigrated from Russia to settle in rural Maine. Being Jewish, the clan assimilated into American culture and society. Little Louise (born Leah) grew up poor, marrying an older, fat man in order to get out of the sticks and live in bustling New York City. There she lives through a disastrous marriage and a mental break until she abandons her husband and son to find herself over the course of decades in Europe where she eventually gets into her groove as an artist.

While it sounds ripe with melodrama and pathos, the result is flat. Even the combative nature of the interview isn't insightful or interesting. The Man antagonizes her, calling her out on both her lies and her life choices. Though both are attempting to define her legacy as a towering figure in 20th-century American art, she's presented as banal and weak so it's impossible to understand her true impact.

The out and proud Albee was friends with Nevelson in real life, so it would seem he would have some real insight into her life, but it isn't apparent on the page or on the stage. He's a theater legend, having written undeniable classics like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia" and winning not just two Tonys but three Pulitzers (in addition to a Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement), but he's unable to inject enough juice or élan into this script to make it come alive.

Director Heather Chesley has created a hushed conversation between two fairly flaccid characters who appear on a stage devoid of anything except for two benches and a portrait of the real-life Nevelson hanging on a curtain behind them. He is dressed in a conservative suit and she in flowing robes and a turban. Nevelson seems to have been a force to be reckoned with, but onstage she is enervated, with even her attempts at sassy one-liners failing to land.

There's almost no accompanying musical score so the fact that the play is so pale isn't even rectified by music, other characters or even props. Liebman, surprisingly, has a juicier role as the interviewer because he both idolizes Louise but can't help to want to tear her down. Hackett's Louise is too hollow to leave the impression she needs to consider the entire project revolves around her life and her life force. Nevelson deserves a better homage because it is indeed a life worth examining.

"Edward Albee's Occupant" runs through March 4 at the Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank, CA 91505. For tickets, call 818-955-8101 or go to GarryMarshallTheatre.org.