It actually took less than a century for playwriting to get out from under the thumb of Eugène Scribe, the guy who, in the mid–19th century, perfected the well-made-play formula, with its information-laden opening scene in which all the exposition was laid out. Ibsen used it brilliantly, Strindberg trashed it, Maeterlinck airily waved it away as unimportant, and that was that. Playwriting hasn’t worked Scribe’s way since World War I. Unfortunately, the form he invented imprinted itself so firmly on the popular mind that playwrights still struggle with the problem of where, and how, to lay out their information.
Edward Albee’s Occupant, at last unveiled for the press in Signature Theatre’s new production (there was an abortive one in 2002 with the late Anne Bancroft), wants to be both dramatic and informative. A tribute to Albee’s longtime Soho neighbor, the sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899–1988), Occupant seems to have emerged from a ganglion of conflicting impulses: to celebrate Nevelson’s artistic achievement; to capture and revel in her striking personality; to trace the complex odyssey by which she became an artist; and to explore, in some general way, the sources of creativity.
None of these is exactly a suitable premise for drama. In a sense, Occupant is a play simply because Albee is a playwright. Ideas come to him in dialogue form; to embody them in an essay or a novel would entail some kind of seismic shift in his sensibility. Besides, Nevelson in life was so strong a presence that the desire to see her as a stage character seems inevitable. Albee’s difficulties start—and you can virtually see him wrestling with them from the opening moment—with his recognition of the problem. Just having Nevelson speak, or lecturing about her, isn’t dramatic; a factitious and-then-I-sculpted recitation would be even less so. Albee’s solution, intriguing and frustrating by turns, is to embody his quest for the proper procedure in an uncertain interviewer, The Man (Larry Bryggman), while vesting in Nevelson (Mercedes Ruehl) his resistance to the whole idea of artists being pinned down biographically.
The result is a fitful—and sometimes fitfully repetitive—game of cat-and-mouse, with Bryggman tossing the facts, and the alleged or contradictory claims of various sources, at Ruehl’s Nevelson, who parries them with testy denials, hedges, shrugs, counterclaims, and occasional admissions. Until very late, almost nothing gets said about Nevelson’s art or how she perceived it, but even that mirrors her actual biography, since she was famously one of art’s late bloomers. And it allows Pam MacKinnon’s production, staged as a metaphysical version of a meet-the-artist event (“I’ve never interviewed someone who is dead before”), to get its one stunning dramatic coup out of Christine Jones’s sleekly modern lecture-hall set.
The effect, after so much back-and-forth about Nevelson’s happy/unhappy childhood and the troubles of her largely miserable marriage, compels the audience to do its own thinking about why people become artists and how their art takes on its particular form. The gossip about Nevelson—her early failures, her murky dealer relationships, her drinking—is left as gossip, neither confirmed nor denied. Her personality, though slightly frozen in place by Albee’s distinctively high-toned diction, comes through as salty, sage, and wryly accepting of life’s irrationalities. Bryggman, stuck with a role that demands constant discomfiture, gives it the endearing fervor of a sap on a hopeless quest; Ruehl, clearly knowing that her lines contain all the spice in this eccentric dish, stirs in the varied flavors with a master chef’s assurance. In a sense, she’s recapitulating Albee’s process: Occupant‘s script is a lesson in how to give leftover scraps of fact the appearance and savor of a hearty meal.
Saved, Playwrights Horizons’ musical version of the 2004 movie, has a different struggle with information. Even without having seen the film, one can easily spot its origin in a well-meaning impulse to deliver an illustrated lecture, for perturbed teenagers, on the difference between the genuine spirit of Christianity and the rigidities of the Christian-right rule book. The scenarists’ way of doing this, as carried over by librettists John Dempsey and Rinne Groff, is as cunningly tidy as anything in Scribe, involving a high school for born-agains, a boy (Aaron Tveit) who discovers he’s gay, and the innocent girl, appropriately named Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger), who gets pregnant trying to rescue him from the pit of Sodom. Meanwhile, to keep older viewers interested, Mary’s mother (Julia Murney) faces similarly wicked temptations with the school’s married-but-estranged pastor-principal (John Dossett). All the concealed dirt spills out at the senior prom, and all the appropriate morals (appropriate for liberals, that is) get drawn.
It sounds terribly cozy, and often is. But the book writers are smart, and the lyrics, which they co-wrote with composer Michael Friedman, often go a notch better than smart, though Friedman’s music hews too tightly to the bland pop-rock idiom most acceptable to the non-NYC teenage audiences at whom Saved seems to be aimed. Gary Griffin has given the piece a suitably tidy production, and Scott Pask atones for his drably cluttered recent work with a set both attractive and functional. The cast is first-rate: Besides the four principals, Curtis Holbrook and Morgan Weed are particularly effective as the school’s resident cynics. But what’s this market-shaped work doing at Playwrights Horizons?
And what’s Second Stage doing, putting Carly Mensch’s Len, Asleep in Vinyl, a wholly unready novice work, up in front of critics, even in one of its low-budget “New Plays Uptown” productions? Another hipster-dad-versus-artist-son story, with embittered mom and a screwed-up celebrity bimbo as not-so-innocent bystanders, its substance is all family information, long familiar to audiences and uncertainly conveyed, with dad coming off as such a self-important flakehead that you wonder why son even bothers to attempt communication. Jackson Gay has provided an efficient production, of which I believed almost nothing except Daniel Eric Gold’s pulsating angst as the son, and Leslie Lyles’s sardonic detachment as his mother. And couldn’t Gay at least have remembered that people don’t know the layout of houses they’ve never been in?