Diva: Mercedes Ruehl

Photo: Eric McNatt for New York Magazine

Ever since she won a Tony for Lost in Yonkers and an Oscar for The Fisher King in the same year, Mercedes Ruehl has been pegged as earthy and ethnic. Now she plays flashy art philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim in Lanie Robertson’s Woman Before a Glass. Boris Kachka talked to her about why the aristocratic Guggenheim is more like the real Mercedes than you might think.

You’ve never been in a one-woman show before?
Never! The first time I read it, you could open up your dressing room and see tumbleweeds rolling up and down the hallway backstage. There was nobody there! I went, Whoah, lonely stuff. And another thing—aside from the experience of sheer terror, there is a sense of, Oh my God, the lines! It’s a long thing to memorize.

At least she’s got a strong voice to carry you through.
I asked David Porter, who is now in his nineties and was a very intimate friend of Peggy’s, “Did she capture a room with the force of her personality?” He said, “No, not really, she was very quiet and unprepossessing.” Well, you can’t do a 90-minute show about quiet and unprepossessing! But her life was a ballsy life—I think she single-handedly was responsible for changing the center of the art world from Paris to New York after the war—so at one point I decided to take the ballsiness and the adventurousness and put it into her personality. What I did do was research her voice and her accent. I don’t think she used foul language characteristically, but everything that’s crass sounds a little bit more palatable if it’s said in an elegant accent. And the man that I live with, Dave Geiser, is a painter, and because of him I’ve become much more fluent in the movements of modern art. So there are many aspects that keep me vibrating with Peggy.

You’re certainly thought of for your New York roles, even though you were raised in Maryland. How did you wind up doing so many?
All of my relatives were from the Bronx, and my mother used to entertain me by doing the accents of straphangers coming down into Manhattan. I got the deliciousness of the New York sound from her. When I was 21 and graduated from college, I moved back.

Did you live a starving-actor life?
Yes. I got one job through a friend—she said, “Look, you can get $125 if you put on a costume and be the Sauza Tequila rooster at the Coliseum.” In those days I had the most gorgeous legs in the world. I had this huge, ugly, seven-foot costume on, but my legs were just in red tights, and all day long, gentlemen would come up to me and say, “Darling, can I be around when you take that rooster costume off?”

Speaking of changing, you manage to put on a bra in this show without taking off your Fortuny dress.
I have not had a lot of practice putting on a bra in front of an audience, and there have been mishaps. I would find the eye but miss the hook, find the hook but miss the eye, and the audience and I enjoy the whole little event. I’m always sure I’m going to flash the audience.

Woman Before a Glass
At The Promenade Theatre, Through July 3

Diva: Mercedes Ruehl