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Paulanne Simmons

Mercedes Ruehl is Peggy Guggenheim

"Woman Before a Glass"
Directed by Casey Childs
The Promenade Theatre
2162 Broadway
Opened March 10, 2005. Closing Date: Open Run
Tues. - Sat. at 8 p.m., Wed. and Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. (212) or www.telecharge.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 30, 2005

In the publicity and Playbill for "Woman Before a Glass," Mercedes Ruehl is shown against a background of Venice with its canals and bridges, gondolas and palaces. In the actual production at The Promenade Theatre, the action is limited to what happens in Peggy Guggenheim's home, a Venetian palazzo (which set designer Thomas Lynch suggests with an intricate mobile and a few pieces of furniture, sometimes brought to the stage via suspended ropes). The task of conjuring up Venice is left to Ms. Ruehl. Delightfully, at times poignantly, Ruehl evokes much more than Venice. She calls up both Guggenheim's tempestuous life and the tumultuous times she lived in.

Descended from middle-European Jewish peddlers who made a fortune in America, Guggenheim spent the greater part of her life in Europe where she bedded and/or befriended many of the 20th century's most productive luminaries - Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett. At the urging of the latter, she also began collecting the work of indigent painters, works which no one else suspected would one day hang in the galleries of the world's major art museums.

If Guggenheim rescued these artists' paintings and sculpture from oblivion, she also rescued the artists from the fury of the Nazi killing machine, smuggling paintings and painters to safety. An achievement that (at least in this play) overshadows the mess she made of her personal life.

The central theme of Woman Before a Glass concerns Guggenheim's quandary over what to do with her "children," her name for her art collection. But the emotional core of the play revolves around her relationship with her daughter, Pegeen, a suicidal, apparently untalented artist whom one suspects may have taken up the brush as the only way of getting close to her mother.

Certainly Guggenheim, such an excellent judge of talent in non-relatives, is seemingly blind to her own daughter's lack of ability. Having lost the father she adored when he went down with the Titanic, her beloved sister when she died in childbirth and the only man she loved when he died for reasons unstated, Guggenheim has nothing left but her art, her memories and Pegeen. Unless you count her son, who seems to turn up only when he needs money.

Ruehl performs Lanie Robertson's monologue with breathtaking perfection. Her extravagant gestures and mobile face capture Guggenheim in all her petulance and pathos. She berates her servants, beseeches her suicidal daughter and bemoans the many injuries (both physical and emotional) she has received from all those men whom she exploited and was exploited by.

Undeniably, Ruehl is well directed by Casey Childs. But Ruehl's visceral understanding of this complex woman who could descend from the heights of sophistication and commitment to the depth of selfishness and lubricity is uncanny.

Thanks to Robertson's writing and Ruehl's timing and tone, much of Woman Before a Glass is quite funny. The humor is not the kind that keeps an audience in peels of laughter, but rather the more cerebral kind that ends in a chuckle of recognition and perhaps a little pain.

Woman Before a Glass sounds like the title of one of the paintings Guggenheim may have bought. Or it could refer to the act of lifting the curtain and making oneself visible through confession. On the other hand, the glass may be a looking glass that reflects Guggenheim back to herself.

Some people may be disappointed by what they believe to be a lack of depth in Woman Before a Glass. But Robertson has a deceptively light tough. And in the end, it may be much more entertaining and enlightening to put a woman before a glass than to put her under a microscope.[Simmons]


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