Peggy Guggenheim must have had a good time in life; her story shows what a little money, a little intelligence, and a little get-up-and-go can accomplish when they’re all vested in the same person. Born wealthy enough to do as she pleased, she came of age in the 1920s, riding the era’s wave of feminism into a long career as a patron, enabler, and, apparently to some extent, sexual predator among the masters of modern art. If she became something of a noted eccentric later in life, she nonetheless carried off her eccentricity with the high style more normally associated with British aristocrats than with second-generation Jewish Americans. Though never a creative force in herself, she collected art (and in bed collected artists) with a kind of broad-ranging selectivity that made her palazzo in Venice, where she settled after World War II, one of the major shrines of artistic pilgrimage for lovers of modernism, with Arps and Ernsts and Tanguys and Pollocks scattered in every direction. While the Nazis were tromping across France, Peggy was in the Unoccupied Zone, shipping a trove of contemporary works to New York, safely out of reach of Goebbels’s looters, and pulling strings to get visas for the artists themselves, suspect to the gestapo as Jews, leftists, stateless persons, and practitioners of “degenerate art.” When Max Ernst’s visa was challenged, she married him so that he could stay in the U.S. as a spouse instead of a refugee.
Mercedes Ruehl, who plays Guggenheim in Lanie Robertson’s diverting new solo play on the subject, Woman Before a Glass, appears to be enjoying herself thoroughly, just as Guggenheim undoubtedly did in reality. Ruehl, who is capable in other roles of giving off a darkly sensuous beauty, has no compunction about appearing here as a mixture of freewheeling sophisticate, tyrannical grande dame, and embittered frump—all of which Peggy, who was assuredly no beauty, could be on occasion. Underneath the constant pursuit of pleasure, and the constant excitement of artistic discovery, her life held a steady tug of unhappiness. As a small girl, Peggy lost her father on the Titanic (he gave up his seat in the lifeboat to a woman passenger); her first marriage, to the artistic dilettante Laurence Vail, was a disaster; she was alienated from her son and went through agonies over her ultra-sensitive (and apparently emotionally disturbed) daughter. None of this fazed her; she went through her eccentric final years, haggling with the world’s great museums over which would inherit her astonishing collection, with the same outspokenness, and the same determination to live life to the hilt, that had marked her as a force to be reckoned with in the Paris art scene of the 1930s.
Ruehl’s ability to display this indomitable joie de vivre even while Robertson’s script is compelling her to face the dark side of Guggenheim’s life is what gives her performance the extra glow that validates the occasion. Grieving over her daughter, sneering dismissively as she recounts marital and social disasters, wailing over the unreliability of servants, curators, and lovers, she fills every lament with a zest that suggests that miseries, too, are to be relished as gifts life brings us, like the Arp in the garden or the reflection of the moon in the Grand Canal. Peggy Guggenheim was anything but a philosopher; apart from the authority and technical skill that Ruehl brings to the role, her great achievement is to make the performance seem to convey a philosophy of life. As a result, though never precisely a drama, it becomes something more than the usual biographical solo show with its and-then-I-screwed recitation of a parade of gossipy facts.
In this she gets good support from Robertson, who has worked in the genre before and knows how to keep it animated and vivid. The facts have got to be worked in; even more, they have to be explained and put in context, for a New York theater audience today is unlikely to know who Tanguy was, let alone Fortuny and Vionnet. Robertson’s tactic, appropriate for a life as sexually luxuriant as Guggenheim’s, is a sort of biographical analogue to bedroom farce: Always keep several actions going at once, so that each can convey a separate segment of the necessary information and at the same time reveal a different facet of the subject’s character. In the opening scene, for instance, Peggy is simultaneously coping with an Italian TV crew that has come to interview her, trying to decide what to wear for an impending visit from the country’s president, and ranting about her maid’s sudden decision to go on vacation. The maid’s absence means that Peggy herself must haul out the possible dresses for the presidential visit. Since each is an original with a history, like the works of art in her collection, the dresses become the objective correlative of her life as a collector.
Fittingly, director Casey Childs has organized the space around Ruehl to evoke rather than attempt to literalize her legendary accumulation. Thomas Lynch’s set supplies shapes and bursts of color that cunningly avoid representing identifiable works; Phil Monat’s lighting shifts to hint at hidden spaces just beyond that contain more treasures; Willa Kim’s costumes convey Guggenheim’s droll blend of chichi elegance and down-home informality. But the main thing, as it should be, is Ruehl. Pouting or frantic, chattering in recollection or fixating on some erotic memory, she makes the idea of a life lived for and with art seem reasonable, and even admirable. And in so doing, she celebrates Peggy Guggenheim in the most appropriate way: by turning the woman herself into a work of art.