The moment when you take a second look at something you loved in the past is always fraught with tension. Will the object of your gaze, or your love for it, prove strong enough to have survived everything that’s happened since? Or will it seem diminished, withered, empty, making you think what a fool you were to fall for it back then? I last looked at Donald Margulies’s Sight Unseen around a dozen years ago, when I was writing the preface for the volume of his collected plays that it leads off (Sight Unseen and Other Plays, TCG Books). Heading for Manhattan Theater Club’s Biltmore, with memories of the newly renovated theater’s unhappy first season hovering over me, I wondered if I would still love Sight Unseen.
Margulies’s play itself deals, appositely, with just such a situation. Its focal point is a painting—a sight unseen by the audience—that the hero, Jonathan Waxman, created in his student days, a nude portrait of a woman he then loved, who has since moved to England and married an archaeologist. Waxman, meantime, has become an art-market superstar, pulling down big bucks for a very different type of canvas that employs controversial shocker imagery, as in his celebrated Walpurgisnacht, which shows an interracial nude couple copulating—or is it a case of rape?—in a desecrated Jewish cemetery. Fans of contemporary art may find something distinctly Fischl about his approach. In London for his first European retrospective, Jonathan pays an overnight visit to Patricia, his ex, and her husband, at their drafty cottage near a dig in the north of England. The painting, which Patricia has kept, hangs just out of view. While she and Jonathan excavate, as it were, their personal past, Margulies splices into the uncomfortable visit both flashbacks to the pivotal scenes they recall and flash-forwards to Jonathan being interviewed at his show by a female German art critic with a distinctly confrontational agenda. In all three segments of Jonathan’s life—past, present, and public—emotional explosions are detonated; certain matters are settled, but no cozy resolutions are achieved.
To describe the play in such detail gives away my reaction on seeing it again—I love this dense, troubling, compassionate piece—just as our being told early about the painting’s presence in the retrospective “gives away” the plot resolution of which a shallower playwright would have made a big deal. We know that Jonathan gets the painting back, and duly learn how. What we can never fully learn, humans being the mysterious creatures they are, is what the painting and Patricia mean to him, what he and his work mean to her. The emotional interchanges as written are so complex that assigning blame for the failure of the relationship becomes as hard as judging the quality of paintings we never see (let alone the motives behind them). Jonathan’s Jewishness, a subject of contention with both Patricia and the blonde, Aryan interviewer, supplies a question of cultural identity that runs parallel to the play’s more general questions about love, art, career, and the wrenched perspective time gives all three. Patricia’s husband, Nick, lovingly sifting through an ancient Roman garbage heap, adds a sardonic commentary on the urban garbage heap of our own culture: This is a play not only for but about the ages.
Sight Unseen‘s calibrations are so delicate that the slightest shift in acting strength can alter its emotional balance; at the same time, its construction is so sturdy that such alterations reveal new colors of feeling in the script, rather than diminishing its force. The original production was a success because its four-person cast was as perfectly balanced an ensemble as I am ever likely to see. The new rendition is a little less lucky, but Daniel Sullivan’s knowing, probing direction seems to have mined every feeling the four players can muster, and the result is still a rich, exhilarating experience; you leave at the end in gratitude that something of substance has occurred. My only quibble with Sullivan is over the elaborate scene changes, which entail lowering the curtain and expending precious seconds on fancy business with projections and music; the barer original production knew better than to break the momentum this way.
Within each scene, however, Sullivan has mapped the lines of this emotional minefield with his usual astuteness. Three of his actors, in their skill at conveying the textured intensity these roles need, score a 100 percent—maybe even more than that in two cases. Laura Linney, who played Grete the interviewer in the first production, remakes herself powerfully here as Patricia, pulling out passions that nearly pull the play inside out, making its focus the model rather than the artist. In part, she can do this because of Byron Jennings’s brilliant rendering of Nick as a shambling, woebegone creature fixated on his American beauty. Up against two such creations, Ben Shenkman, a gifted young actor, isn’t so much outclassed as out-deepened; he lacks Linney’s or Jennings’s experience at digging in and layering a role, so that Jonathan’s anguish comes off a little callow and thin by contrast. Our youth-fixated culture may resent this, but some roles require the enrichment time brings. Ana Reeder, rounding out the quartet, makes a cattily appealing Grete.