Writer: Lanie Robertson
Director: Austin Pendleton
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
For a woman born at the tail end of the 19th century, Peggy Guggenheim strikes a very modern, liberated chord in Woman Before a Glass, a one-act play by Lanie Robertson. Far more sexually and socially liberated than her peers, Guggenheim collected husbands (not necessarily her own) with as much vigour as she did art.
Much like Robertson’s Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill, which played to acclaim in the West End last year, the play is an extended monologue exploring a woman’s life from her own point of view. Here, Judy Rosenblatt plays Guggenheim with a mischievous twinkle as she awaits the visit of the Italian president to the Venice palazzo which she has crammed with modern art.
In Rosenblatt’s delivery, Guggenheim is warm and engaging, utterly believable as someone who had a passionate affair with Samuel Beckett, was best friends with Marchel Duchamp and acted as patron to the likes of Jackson Pollock. But there is insecurity, too: not only a sense of inferiority compared to other branches of the Guggenheim family (due in part to her father’s untimely death aboard the RMS Titanic, they were “millionaires, not billionaires”) but also her despair at her daughter’s ongoing battles with depression.
Indeed, the relationship between Guggenheim and her offspring is seen as less important to the woman than that between her and her art collection: she refers to giving up her son Sindbad to the custody of her ex-husband because he made too much noise, while her paintings and statuary are what she unironically refers to as “my children”.
The contrast between the effort she puts into finding her artworks a home after her death, and the emotional distance from own children, hits home eventually. Rosenblatt’s reaction to a final, devastating phone call provides the climax of a piece which allows the portrayal of Guggenheim as a complex, layered woman.
Director Austin Pendleton brings a dynamism to the 90-minute monologue, ensuring that Rosenblatt is conversationally humorous and animated when needed, bringing extra contrast to her moments of stillness and introspection. Erika Rodriguez’s set foregoes any attempt to portray Guggenheim’s art collection by setting the action in possibly the only art-free room in the woman’s Venetian home.
But the emptiness of the cream walls do at least allow us to concentrate on Rosenblatt’s performance: full of character and warmth, and utterly convincing as a woman who gave her life to her passion for art.
Runs until 3rd Feb 2018 | Image: Robert Workman