The glass before the woman in Woman Before a Glass — Lanie Robertson's biographical play on Peggy Guggenheim — is full of Tanqueray with-a-twist for most of the evening, but, at the opening-night party, the actress who impersonates Guggenheim to a frayed and funny fare-thee-well slipped a tad out of character and sipped a Stoli-with-a-twist.
"It has that same bing!" Mercedes Ruehl assured all, with a throaty, theatrical laugh.
She had much to toast. If ever an actress rated roses on her opening, it was Ruehl — and yet, inexplicably, none were forthcoming. Instead, she was allowed to bask in the adoration of the audience, who rose instantly as one and brought her back for four curtain calls.
So how did Ruehl feel about her total and complete conquest, a reporter wanted to know. Ever the realist, Ruehl responded with asterisks and qualifiers. "Opening nights are never my best nights," she admitted, "but I feel that it's a wheel rolling out of its own center now. It took until just a few nights ago to get it there, but now I feel I can trust that that woman will be there again." "That woman" was the high-priestess of art patrons, an heiress-turned bohemian who discovered and encouraged Jackson Pollock (among many others) and spent her millions amassing a singularly stunning collection of works by Picasso, Duchamp, Klee, Dali, DeKooning, Braque, et al. An old lover, the playwright Samuel Beckett, had put her on to this path in the 1930's — "Buy modern art because it lives," he said — and she followed his advice with a vengeance and an open checkbook, always listening to her own drummer.
It was her belief, and Robertson's contention, that you are what you collect — that one's art is an accurate mirror reflection of oneself. With pointedly more affection than she showed toward Sinbad and Pegeen Vail — her two flesh-and-blood creations by the second of her three husbands, painter and novelist Laurence Vail — Guggenheim called her collection her "children," and she spends the balance of this 100-minute play trying to find a home for them. "Mine's the most important private collection of 20th century art in the world, and what am I gonna do with it?" she frets from 1962 to 1969 before she finally figures out, like Dorothy Gale, that happiness is in your own backyard. The play begins and ends at Guggenheim's lavish home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, where her art (valued at $350 million) has rested in peace beside her since her death in 1979 at 81.
"I wanted the text to reflect the Cubism and the Dadaism of the artwork she collected," explained Robertson. "I didn't want to be like that wonderful play Tru [by Jay Presson Allen] or that equally fabulous Full Gallop [by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson], where you see a character for an hour-and-a-half or two hours and then you leave. I wanted it to be a kaleidoscope of images of this woman. That's why I call it 'a triptych in four parts.' We have three heavily detailed parts, which form the triptych, and then the coda of the play. I wanted each of the scenes to be in a different time period, and I wanted her to be a driving force through the play. She lived about ten years after her daughter's suicide, and the only thing she did was to get an agreement with The Guggenheim Foundation that her home and her collection would remain intact there. Actually, what apparently happened to Peggy in real life is that, once her daughter died, she pretty much gave up. She gained weight. Her hair went white. She wasn't the bon vivant she'd been."
The instigator of the play is its director, Casey Childs, who commissioned the piece for his Primary Stages. On New Year's Day of 2002, he happened to visit The Guggenheim Gallery in Berlin and, in the bookstore there, saw a picture of Peggy Guggenheim on the cover of a German edition of Art Lover. It spoke to him.
"I said, 'Ah, ha! A one-woman show based on the life of Peggy Guggenheim! I know it can work in New York.'" When he returned to New York, he pitched the notion to Robertson, who had written a play on Joe Orton [Nasty Little Secrets] that Childs had produced twice at Primary Stages. "Once we had a script, we talked about who we thought would be good in the show, and we thought instantly of Mercedes. She called back about a week later and said, 'Let's do it.'"
Then Childs drafted a couple of his neighbors on West 82nd to outfit the actress — Paul Huntley to do the curly, close-cropped wig and Willa Kim to do the classic couturier costumes. "Just the idea of Willa Kim clothing Peggy Guggenheim is a wonderful idea."
Kim agreed. "The show was wonderful for me because that's my era," she said, "and I'm the only one in the whole production who actually knew her, met her and stayed at her place. My husband and Sinbad Vail were buddies so we took a trip with Sinbad's father, Laurence Vail — from Paris to Switzerland and to Venice. It took us three days to get there, but we had a marvelous trip. We took two different cars, and Laurence packed them with these crummy artworks. I kept apologizing to the customs people. 'That's not my work, you know. That belongs to the man in front of us.' Finally, we got to Peggy's place in Venice. I didn't think anything much about her other than she was Sinbad's mother. She always acted like a mother around him. I didn't know this legend was happening."
Now, thanks to Mercedes Ruehl's bravura performance, that legend — like the art she left behind — is alive and well and living at the Promenade Theatre through June 12. Samuel Beckett might be pleased it survived.