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Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen"

The Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
May 6-July 11. 8:00 pm, $81-$26.
TeleCharge.com at (212) 239-6200 or at www.telecharge.com or at the Biltmore Theatre box office at 261 W. 47th St.
Reviewed by Robert Hicks on June 4, 2004

Laura Linney in "Sight Unseen." Photo by Joan Marcus


All the characters in Donald Margulies' humorous and thought-provoking play, "Sight Unseen," can't escape the past.

Margulies (2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Dinner With Friends" and 1992 Obie for Best New American Play for "Sight Unseen") first staged "Sight Unseen" at the Orpheum Theater in 1992. The Manhattan Theatre Club, which first produced the play, is now reviving it in a brilliant new production at the beautifully renovated Biltmore Theatre through July 11.

Successful Jewish-American artist Jonathan Waxman (Ben Shenkman) re-enters the life of his former non-Jewish, American girlfriend Patricia (Laura Linney) at the height of his career. He's visiting her at a cold farmhouse in Norfolk, England in 1991 while a retrospective of his paintings is on display at a London art gallery.

Patricia is now married to a sardonic British archeologist, Nick (Byron Jennings), whom she wed to gain permanent legal status in England away from her miserable family life in America.

Grete (Ana Reeder) plays a buxom, yet relentlessly probing and intelligent German journalist who interviews Waxman about his art, revealing not only her anti-Semitism but his defensive, insecure feelings about his identity as an artist and as a Jew.

Director Dan Sullivan's sensitive production brings out all the humor, psychological tension and subtle nuances of these characters' varied personalities. He never allows their multi-layered feelings and expressions to get buried beneath Margulies' thematic ideas concerning art, commerce, social and personal history, family and ethnic values, creativity and self-identity.

Margulies' timeline for the events in these characters' lives can be confusing, but ultimately serves as ironic commentary on his characters' lives. For example, the playwright waits until scene three of act one to show us a discussion between Nick and his wife that chronologically took place one hour before Waxman's arrival at their farmhouse in scene one of act one. They argue over the details of where Jonathan should sleep during his stay at their farmhouse. Pat wants Jonathan to enjoy the comforts of sleeping in her husband's bed while she and Nick retire to a cot in their living room. She resents Nick's apparent disapproval of this arrangement, saying, "You don't want him to have our bed." Nick's steely reply, "He has it already" sheds chilling light on their uncomfortable marriage and on how Pat is still caught up in her past relationship with Jonathan that ended 15 years ago in America.

Margulies next shakes up our comfortable sense of time by taking us to Jonathan's bedroom in his parents' house in Brooklyn in 1976. Waxman's mother has just died. Patty has come to visit Jonathan telling him that she has agonized over missing his mother's funeral. Waxman's father, she tells him, has greeted her with a kiss and fatherly approval and love. Jonathan's mother, however, did not approve of her Jewish son dating non-Jewish Patty who felt invisible in her presence. After Mrs. Waxman's death, her disapproval of Patty still looms large in Jonathan's mind, causing him to tell Patty that he didn't want to see her. His parting words to Patty are "I don't love you." Her hurt is only surpassed by Jonathan's double sense of loss.

Act two returns us to the end of scene one in act one. Nick's initial deadpan sarcasm toward Jonathan in act one now turns into bitter resentment and a cold, distanced attack on Jonathan's value as an artist. Patricia's rude, aggressive dismissal of her past in America and her feelings of being Jonathan's "sacrificial shiksa" in act one now resurface as a portrayal of tension and psychological separation between her and Nick. She tells Jonathan that Nick has found a latrine and late medieval rubbish, rages and broken plates in his archeological digs. She sarcastically concludes, "Everything you need to know about a culture is in its rubbish." All the while, Nick has left the table where Patricia continues to talk to Jonathan. Director Sullivan's astute stage blocking here physically underscores the psychological and emotional separation and tension between Patricia and her husband as Nick leafs through Waxman's art book. Suddenly, Nick interjects, "I'm looking at your paintings. I don't get it. Is this what gets the art world on fire?"

Nick feels modern art is merely reinventing what was said in the Renaissance. Jennings wonderfully conveys Nick's sardonic humor as he derides the modern artists' place and value in the real world. Despite his wealth and artistic success, Jonathan comes across as a rank amateur, more a student of art reactively defending his art than as a famous artist confident of his place in the world.

Margulies adroitly sandwiches the two art gallery scenes in which Greta interviews Waxman between two farmhouse scenes to give contrasting views of Jonathan's identity as artist, man and Jew. Greta's pointed questions about Jonathan's desire for celebrity and about his Jewish identity in the two art gallery scenes are driven home forcefully in a farmhouse scene when Nick reveals that art patrons have bought Jonathan's high-priced paintings "sight unseen" based merely on his reputation.

Two of Waxman's paintings become the focal points for our understanding of the relationship of Jonathan's art to his past and to our full knowledge of him as an artist. The first is a painting he created in his student art days. It is a nude portrait of a female model, who it turns out was Patricia. She now keeps it sight unseen (to the audience at least) in the living room of the farmhouse in England. Waxman's other painting (also sight unseen to the audience) is his celebrated "Walpurgisnacht," which has stirred controversy in the art world for its ambiguous portrayal of a nude couple copulating in a cemetery - or is it (as many art critics and Patricia and Nick suggest) a hateful, racist depiction of a black man raping a white woman?

Nick characterizes Waxman's famous art as "pornography" and Patricia clings to her naïve notion that Jonathan's student portrait of her, his gift to her, is an enduring mark of their connection and of her undying love.

Jonathan, in reaction to Nick's criticism, shows his artistic insecurity by accusing Nick of focusing only on the flesh in his paintings. He attacks Nick, saying "All day you spend scraping away at bones with no flesh. You're afraid of my paintings."

Together, all these scenes build in meticulously detailed layers to reveal Margulies' questions about art. What makes good art? Does art represent reality or is it a resource for the human imagination of both viewer and artist? Or is art merely a path to commerce?

Greta, a German journalist perhaps trapped in her past because of her country's ties to the Holocaust, ironically is the voice that sees Waxman as an artist whose artistic identity can't be separated from his cultural identity. Both artist and Jew she says see themselves as alienated from mainstream culture.

Jonathan holds contempt for art's commercial system, but commerce has made him what he is to most people: an unseen wealthy, successful artist. For Patricia, the one Waxman painting that holds meaning for her has no price. Nick, however, recognizes that Jonathan's portrait of Patricia represents what has prevented his marriage from having a future. He says, "Our future been sitting on the wall all these years. Let it go." His words help underscore his division from Patricia and they define her only sustenance: her past relationship with Jonathan.

As Jonathan readies to leave Patricia in his past, he repossesses her portrait. His past with Patricia we learn in the final scene was dominated from the start by his mother's disapproval of Patricia. Pat's doomed passion for Jonathan on the first day they met in his art studio becomes all the more chilling because it arrives structurally speaking in the play after her final revelation to Jonathan at the farmhouse in England: "I loved being your muse. It thrilled me. The connection was so electric. I never felt so alive as when I sat naked for you. A girl so devoid of self."

Jonathan remains trapped by his mother's view of Patricia as someone destructive, someone against the nature of things. Patricia is caught in the start of a wild adventure that she hoped could give her a sense of identity. "An artist has to experience the world," she told Jonathan when they first met. How do you experience the world," she added, "if you say no to the things you need to experience?" Jonathan's inability to experience life and to love ultimately marks him as a man without any solid representation of himself before the world, a man burdened by his art and by his cultural identity. [Hicks]

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