Who among us, at some time or another, has not thought back to our first teenage love? Where is that person now? That’s the “jumping off” spot for Donald Marguiles’ play “Sight Unseen,” now in previews at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, opening on Friday, January 23. The story revolves around Jonathan Waxman, a very popular painter played by Matthew Arkin, who George Street audiences will remmber from his role in “The Scene.” Jonathan is so “big” in the arts circle, in fact, that his paintings, not-yet-painted, are prepurchased “Sight Unseen” for large amounts of money. Searching for the inspiration that had inspired his first success — or perhaps he has some ulterior motives, he looks up his former love, played by actress Kathleen McNenny, now an archeologist working in England with her husband.
“Sight Unseen” debuted in 1992 and won the Off-Broadway prize (an “Obie”) for Best New American Play. Playwright Marguiles has written numerous plays, including the 2000 Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Dinner with Friends.” Two earlier plays, “Collected Stories” and “Sight Unseen,” had also been nominated for this prestigious prize. George Street audiences were treated to “Collected Stories” during artistic director David Saint’s first season at the theater, with the added treat of the great Uta Hagen repeating the role she had played to acclaim Off Broadway.
The action in “Sight Unseen” takes place from 1974 to 1991 and is set in a cold farmhouse in Norfolk, England, an art gallery in London, a bedroom in Brooklyn, and a painting studio at an arts college in New York State. This gives you an idea of the scope of the play, but don’t count on it bopping along in chronological order. It is rather a collage of time and place that “paints a picture” that only becomes clear when all the parts are put together.
Actress McNenny and I talked by phone during one of her rehearsal breaks. Primarily a stage actress, she talks about her appreciation of this play, particularly the joys of live theater that allow the play to speak to different people in different ways, depending on what each audience member brings to the theater. As a result, no two performances are exactly the same. “I always think the audience is the last character in a play,” she says. “For me this play is about connections. Connecting with people and being brave enough to do it.” She feels that, for the character of Jonathan, the fact that he had made a connection romantically and artistically with this non-Jewish young woman has troubled him throughout his life. Michael Feingold, chief theater critic for the Village Voice wrote in an article published when the play had its second New York City production, “…the question of cultural identity runs parallel to the play’s more general questions about love, art, career, and the wrenched perspective time gives all three.”
McNenny and Arkin have had, she says, “an interesting dialogue” regarding that theme in the play and their different perspectives that have grown from their own personal identity — Arkin is Jewish and she isn’t. “It’s an interesting conundrum,” she says. “Come and see the play, you’ll hear the play differently depending on your own background.”
For someone who considers herself a staunch New Yorker, it is surprising to find that McNenny’s own roots are in Montana, where her parents and grandmother still live. Her dad is a retired forest services worker and her mom is a homemaker. McNenny is the oldest of five children and the only one who has built a theater career; however, one sister is a drama/dance therapist.
Growing up, McNenny says there was no professional theater but thanks to the enthusiasm of the high school’s drama teacher, there was definitely an energized local theater group. McNenny remembers this teacher, Margaret Johnson, with great appreciation. “You’ll find a lot of actors were inspired by their high school theater teachers. They are incredible human beings, who make teaching theater their life. They teach all day, work on student productions at night, raise money for their programs, and give advice to the students who want to become professional performers.” She adds, “They are always big personalities with incredible amounts of energy.”
After only a year of college, McNenny and some friends got in a van and drove to California for auditions for the major theater schools all over the country. She was accepted by a number of schools, including New York University, Yale Drama School, and Juilliard. “I didn’t know where to go so I called a friend who was attending Juilliard. He said, ‘Don’t be an idiot. If you get into Juilliard, you go to Juilliard.’” So she was off to this prestigious school. “It was culture shock to come to New York City, and I was unbelievably poor. I didn’t see the best that the city had to offer, only the icky part.” But the training paid off and she was soon getting small roles in Shakespeare plays for the Public Theater.
Connections have always been a big part of the theater scene and one thing led to another. Working on a television movie of the week, she met actor Boyd Gaines. Then in 1992, their paths crossed again as they rehearsed for the Public Theater’s production in Central Park of “The Comedy of Errors.” Gaines played Antipholus of Ephesus and McNenny was cast as Luciana, the sister of Antipholus’ love, Adriana, played by Marisa Tomei. Tomei may have gotten the role of the lover in the play, but in real life that part went to McNenny. “Boyd and I started hanging out together and eventually, we decided we wouldn’t mind having a child together. We’re very lucky.” Their daughter, Leslie, is 10 years old.
Having a child helped them decide to make New York their home base and to concentrate on work in the theater. When Leslie was very young, McNenny could just take her along on theater or television jobs, but once Leslie was in school, she and Gaines tried not to work at the same time. This became more problematic when Gaines began working so much and winning so many awards in the process. Also a Juilliard grad, he received Tony Awards for “The Heidi Chronicles,” “Contact,” and the just- closed revival of “Gypsy.” The season before “Gypsy,” he won both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics ircle Awards for “Journey’s End.”
McNenny laughs and describes her husband as “one tired boy” who needs a rest. “He’s been working straight for two years.” Most actors would like to have that problem.
McNenny found her most difficult problem to be lining up babysitters when she recently was performing Off Broadway in “Mind Game” with Keith Carradine and Gaines was appearing nightly in “Gypsy.” “But I’m a mother first and I’m also good at multitasking. It took four babysitters to get through the week. They figured out their own rotation system.” Several years ago, actress Heidi Armbruster, who also appears in this production of “Sight Unseen,” had been a sitter for young Leslie at one time. But as she got more and more acting jobs, she “graduated” from babysitting as young Leslie put it.
Truly a multi-tasker McNenny also teaches at Juilliard. She convinced the school’s administration that she could fill a real need for students by teaching a class that is basically Actor’s Survival 101. “I teach them how to take charge of their careers.” She talks about practical things like day jobs, doing voice-overs and commercials, as well as how to apply for unemployment and do their taxes. “Hopefully, I’ve been helpful. I love love, love spending time with the students. When I started, I was auditioning for the same roles they were; now I’m playing their mother.”
Area audiences have seen McNenny in McCarter Theater’s recent production of “Moon for the Misbegotten,” where the leads were cast as much younger than usual. U.S. 1 critic Saltzman described McNenny’s Josie as looking like the glamorous movie actress Maureen O’Hara. (Josie is described in the play’s text as a “great, ugly cow of a woman.”) McNenny’s transformation as this character was applauded by the critics. She also appeared at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in “Richard III” and in January, 2001, performed at George Street in “Human Events” by A.R. Gurney. On Broadway, she has been in “Coram Boy,” “The Constant Wife,” “A Few Good Men,” and a revival of “After the Fall.” Recently, she and Gaines did a play reading together and her dream would be to find a play in which they could perform together on Broadway or Off — or even regionally.
“Sight Unseen,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through February 15. Donald Margulies’ drama about a modern art painter dabbles in controversial themes of race and religion. Cast members include Matthew Arkin, Heidi Armbruster, Christopher Curry, and Kathleen McNenny. Directed by David Saint. $28 to $66. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.