NEW YORK - Hardly anybody saw Edward Albee's

Occupant

at Signature Theatre in 2002; its star, Anne Bancroft, fell ill during previews and the show never officially opened. So this reprise/premiere is a major event in a season filled with Albee events: an 80th birthday, two new plays -

Homelife

(the prequel to

Zoo Story

) and

Me, Myself and I

- in addition to revivals of

Sandbox

and

American Dream

.

The magnificent Mercedes Ruehl, who demonstrated her kinship with Albee's work in the premiere of

The Goat

, plays Louise Nevelson, famous sculptor and Albee's friend for 25 years. The play is a faux interview with the dead Nevelson, in which The Man (Larry Bryggman) introduces, asks leading questions, tries to correct matters of biographical fact.

Nevelson, who reinvented herself several times in her 88 years, is a charming but vexing interviewee, and The Man is an often annoying and unsympathetic interviewer. Given that

Occupant

is a play for two characters, with no action, it might have achieved the stillness of sculpture, but Pam MacKinnon's direction instead busies the stage with endless twitching of papers and pouring of water.

Nevelson appears with her signature eyelashes (two pairs, made of sable), headscarf, and exotic clothes. Ruehl's warm, rich, ironic voice carries the play from her early querulous replies to her late splendid lecture on wood. As she talks about her rapturous breakthrough, her wood sculptures appear upstage - black, gold, white - boxes upon boxes, filled with found shapes.

Occupant

is not just a bio-drama, it's a play about what it is to be an artist, raising the thematic Albee questions about identity and selfhood.

The title comes from a sign posted on the door of Nevelson's hospital room as she was dying in 1988: She had insisted her name be removed, for privacy. But as the play's title, it resonates: Who is the occupant of a life?

But the larger meaning has been diminished by Albee's latest revisions: In the published script, Nevelson appears in a cagelike "carapace" that opens to allow her to move around the stage. At the end of the text, she reenters the "carapace" inside her sculpture, suggesting that the construction of an identity as well as a public image is no less a creation than the constructions that are her art.

But this production has no "cage," so it loses that whole layer of meaning, leaving this Nevelson free and celebratory in front of her work, instead of trapped within it, as all dead artists necessarily are.

Perhaps a truer Nevelson is conveyed in this short poem of hers:

How long - how long

Can I sustain myself

On that littlest of platforms

Tightrope walkers

Have infinite space

Lucky them.