Credit: C. Stanley Photography

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Edward Albee’s Occupant unfolds through a series of rude questions. A scrawny man—an unnamed, professorial-type (Jonathan David Martin)—does the asking. Louise Nevelson—a notable real-life eccentric and one of the 20th century’s great sculptors (Susan Rome)—provides the answers. It’s a Q&A of sorts, indistinguishable from a particularly hostile book talk at Politics and Prose, except for the fact that when the play starts, Nevelson’s been dead for many years.

The man starts off with Nevelson’s childhood, and slowly works his way up until the moment of her death. He’s a deliberate dud of a character. He presses her for gossip about her failed marriage and her sex life (much of which she declines to answer), and whenever her storytelling waxes into hyperbole, he jumps in to get her facts straight. At the end of the first act, he asks her if she’s ever considered suicide. “Yes, of course,” she replies, so he asks her what kept her from doing it. She responds with a non-sequitur, giving a strange, beautiful speech about growing up around horses in rural Maine. Then, visibly confused, he cuts her off, ending the most moving moment in a bone-dry first act, and calling for an intermission.

With Occupant, now on stage at Theater J, fans of Edward Albee might not get what they were expecting. The great playwright of alcohol and intramarital cruelty, Albee made his name in the ’60s and ’70s with a series of living room dramas that combined acid dialogue with an avant-garde refusal to adhere to the conventions of character development. (The most famous of these is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.) His best-known protagonists always remain enigmatic and bewildering; in some of his first plays, they didn’t even names . And while these iconic dramas were certainly exposés of the fictions and failures of heterosexual romance, they were also always more than that. They were stories of how people manage to make lives out of those fictions, however troubled those lives may be.

Occupant, one of his final plays, is in many ways the opposite of all that. With all the family drama happening off-stage, there’s none of the vicious fighting that made his earlier work so damn fun. (The play lacks some energy because of it.) And while in much of his oeuvre Albee refused to give his characters backstories, this piece is nothing but: Nevelson was a real, live person, and the play walks us through her entire biography.

So why the change-up? Well, Nevelson—who was a close friend of Albee’s—accomplished something remarkable. An artist, an immigrant, a woman, a Jew, Nevelson faced repulsive misogyny in the mid-century art world, coupled with anti-Semitism of the literal Nazi variety. Nevertheless, she lived a life in no way defined by her demographic descriptors. She certainly wasn’t immune to the stultifying social norms that Albee spent much of his career preoccupied with, but by the end of her life, she’d moved beyond them.

The play echoes this. The man repeatedly brings up Nevelson’s reputation as a horrendous mother, but she doesn’t say much about it. It’s a principled stance: When discussing a visionary artist, the usual sexist fixations are the wrong questions to ask.

Playing the famous sculptress, Rome is magnetic. With the verve of a natural-born storyteller, she tells anecdotes that you’ll remember word for word. Martin’s unfortunate job is to spoil the fun—he often butts in with an impertinent question just when everything’s starting to take flight. The play works by throwing a veil over the drama and then slowly peeling it back, making us wish we were hearing more from Nevelson and then, finally, letting us. Only toward the end of the play, and of her increasingly liberated life, does the man finally shut up and let Nevelson talk about her art. The result is powerful, and deliciously idiosyncratic. She looks free.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget the drama’s surreal backdrop: This whole time, Nevelson is dead. That fact is made clear early on, although never explained. However, in a play sparse with emotion, this is what gives the drama its quiet pathos. One imagines Albee watching biographers and obituary writers revel in the juicy details of Nevelson’s life, and deciding to write his friend a love letter. That lends a gentle sadness to everything happening on the stage, and supplies the play’s central theme. The most obvious method for Albee to capture her as she was—telling her life story—is inevitably going to fail. 

1529 16th St. NW. $29–$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.

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