by Margaret Croyden


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Woman Before a Glass: Peggy Guggenheim, Super Art Collector
with Mercedes Ruehl
By Lanie Robertson
The Promenade Theater, West 77th Street & Broadway
opened March 10,2005
Reviewed March 17, 2005 by Margaret Croyden

Peggy Guggenheim was a renowned art collector who discovered all the important art of her time. Now only did she own the art, but housed it and saved it forever to became one of the world's most distinguished collections. Housed in the Venice Palazzo where she lived, the collection has drawn thousands of art lovers to Venice to see the Guggenheim paintings and sculpture. No wonder Peggy Guggenheim's life, as a subject for a play, would interest any author. But unfortunately, the playwright Lannie Robertson, depicted Peggy Guggenheim as a unlovable bitch, interested in sex more than art, nasty to her help, patronizing to her mentally ill daughter, and generally behaving as a woman with a giant ego who used art to maintain her self image. For an art collector, she speaks little about art except to name drop.

The one woman show, staring Mercedes Ruehl, takes place at Guggenheim's Palazzo where she wanders around in her lavish palace trying on and throwing out all her clothes which gives her a chance to name drop all the important couturiers who dressed her. At the same time, she rants about everything and everyone--mostly the lovers she had and how good or bad they were in bed. Then she berates her Italian housekeeper who is taking off when she is expecting some notables. With a glass of vodka, or champagne, or whatever in hand, she conducts her business. All along, she screams out in Italian, flirts with the man across the lagoon, and is good at making a bad impression. She is less the picture of an art aficionado and more the stereotypical filthy-mouthed rich-bitch type on third rate television shows.

Repeatedly, she disdains her "Jewish" looks especially her nose, which she claims is a source of her ugliness. With plenty of vulgarity she reveals the names of her lovers and their prowess or lack of it. (Sex is on her mind constantly) Then there is the most ridiculous scene of all. She had been meandering around the room in a see-through nightgown that plainly reveals her breasts, and finally after we have had a good look at Mercedes Ruehl's breasts, she dons a brassiere maneuvering it under the nightgown-- skillfully. Are we supposed to applaud this? What is the meaning of this crude, distraction? What was the director, the star, or playwright thinking?

The author was understandably limited since he chose to deal with a one woman show so that the actress has a hard time relating to other people. Mainly she talks to the audience. And that becomes tedious. Mercedes Ruehl is a fine actress, to be sure, but is hampered by the coarseness of the script and doesn't play against it. Guggenheim talks about how unattractive she is, and Ms. Ruehl makes sure that she is. She wears a bad looking wig, a funny nose, a twisted mouth, and Dame Edna's sun glasses which, when Edna wears them, she is charming. When Ruehl wears them she is ugly. The actress took the playwright at his word and offered us an unattractive personality, who, rather then being intellectual or profound is a loud, repugnant narcissist.

Ms. Guggenheim might have possessed the qualities depicted in the play, but emphasizing the negatives without a counterpart results in a caricature. I give Peggy Guggenheim credit for her collection. But if you are going to put her on the stage, we want to see the human being behind the facade. Nevertheless, people in the audience liked it, and gave Mercedes Ruehl the usual standing ovation. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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