That’s the case even though the acting is stellar and director Aaron Posner infuses the proceedings with as much liveliness as is possible, given the stiffness of the play’s premise. That premise imagines Nevelson (Susan Rome) being interviewed in the afterlife by the Man (Jonathan David Martin), a knowledgeable, politely badgering figure halfway between journalist and tweedy grad student.
After the sculptor swans into an anodyne interview environment (table, benches, water carafe), her fierce gaze set off by dark artificial eyelashes (made of sable, she announces), the Man grills her about her biography, attempting to pinpoint discrepancies and clear away self-aggrandizing myth. “Do facts mean anything to you?” he asks, early on. By turns impatient, condescending and regally smug, Nevelson allows him to guide her through an account of her life, including her Yiddish-speaking childhood, failed marriage, creative breakthroughs, years of underappreciation from the male-dominated art world and eventual acclaim and legend status.
Rome is a zesty presence as the egoistic Nevelson, who exults not only in her artistic vision, but also in the larger-than-life personality she has crafted for herself. The character’s prevailing imperiousness make her moments of doubt all the more poignant, as when, admitting to her failure as a mother, she is suddenly on the verge of tears.
Martin packs the Man with the right genteel obsessiveness, leavened by flashes of amusement. When Nevelson recalls a moment of inexplicable joy she experienced while walking in Europe — “hiking, they call it?”— the Man allows himself a fleeting smile at her out-of-touch phrasing.
Adding to the interpersonal dynamic is the contrast between the Man’s staid jeans-and-blazer look and Nevelson’s bohemian outfit, rich in vibrant colors, patterns and beads. Scenic and costume designer Nephelie Andonyadis also masterminded the Nevelson-esque sculptures that appear at one point, a haunting glimpse of mystery and genius (created with props designer Pam Weiner).
The scenic design helps turn Nevelson’s egocentric insights about her own talent into a universal message about self-knowledge and personal fulfillment. Everyone, the play suggests, needs to find and “occupy” their own niche in life — an existential space as unique and precise as the thicket of abstract artworks we see Nevelson move through.
It’s a meaningful message, and one whose comprehensiveness nicely complements the play’s wealth of specific biographical details. But despite the philosophical and educational value of “Occupant,” and the terrific performances, the play’s contrived and starchy format keeps it from being a satisfying theatrical experience. Nevelson claimed to be drawn by the “livingness” of her primary medium, wood. One wishes her friend Albee had managed to infuse more livingness into this script.
Occupant, by Edward Albee. Directed by Aaron Posner; lighting design, Jesse Belsky; projection design, Devin Kinch. About 130 minutes. $39-$69. Through Dec. 8 at Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.