In his welcome to the opening night audience, George Street Playhouse Artistic Director David Saint said how excited he was to be directing Donald Margulies’ Obie Award-winning (Best New American Play) play, especially since it was the first play by him that he had seen. His excitement can be shared by audiences that will undoubtedly find it well directed and cast.
“Sight Unseen” was originally produced by the Manhattan Theater Club in 1992 and later revived by them at the Biltmore Theatre (their Broadway venue) in 2004. Saint directed the great Uta Hagen in Margulies’ play “Collected Stories” during his first season. It is easy to understand Saint’s interest in “Sight Unseen.” It is an enigmatic but engrossing play that expounds upon some complex issues, including anti-Semitism and the Jewish psyche. With that heady stuff, it also provides laughs even as it is bound to stir up some serious discussion.
Jonathan Waxman (Matthew Arkin) is a highly successful, albeit controversial “visionary” Jewish-American artist who believes that he has lost his soul/inspiration. The first retrospective of his work is about to open in the U.K. and Jonathan has decided to pay a visit to Patricia (Kathleen McNenny), the woman who was his lover and muse during his college days. Fifteen years have passed since their relationship ended abruptly and hurtfully particularly for Patricia. She is now living modestly in a farmhouse in Norfolk with her husband Nick (Christopher Curry), working together as archeologists who “sift through piles of ancient rubbish every day.”
Jonathan is greeted tentatively by Nick, whose unwelcoming behavior is attributed by Patricia to his being “painfully shy.” We soon discover that Nick is able when agitated to express his resentment of Jonathan with candor and specificity. Kathleen also affects a degree of hostility although it is tempered by hospitality, as she is not quite comfortable with Jonathan’s visit or the reason behind it. She has never gotten over being “the shiksa” who Jonathan tossed aside. Jonathan makes no bones about looking for some kind of artistic renewal despite commanding huge prices for his paintings whether completed or not, hence the title “Sight Unseen.”
Margulies uses the initial visit to initiate scenes that go back and forth in time to various locations and where we gain more insight into these flawed but interestingly conflicted characters. The time traveling is easy to follow and structured to bring out just enough background about the characters to keep us involved. A stone-walled farmhouse kitchen is the primary setting (handsomely designed by Michael Anania) but it seamlessly rotates to reveal Jonathan’s bedroom in Brooklyn, the art gallery and a painting studio in an art college.
It is at the gallery where the play’s one remaining character is introduced: Grete (Heidi Armbruster), a German arts critic. A key provocateur, she is a conspicuously alluring blonde in trendy attire who asks Jonathan some subtly pointed questions regarding his paintings and their “bleak” subject matter. Jonathan becomes increasingly uneasy with her questions regarding a painting of a black man and a white woman copulating in a Jewish cemetery and another one of a nude, an early seminal work from his youth. That Grete interprets them as reflections of his Jewish aesthetic puts Jonathan in a defensive mode, even a rage.
The inclusion of that nude in the exhibit becomes a pivotal part of the plot, as Jonathan had given it as a gift to Patricia, who has kept it hanging on the wall (out of our sight) of her home, but where it apparently serves as a reminder to Nick that he wasn’t and never will be the love of Patricia’s life. There is considerable talk about Jonathan’s sacrifice of goodness and his need for success by hiring a PR person. Jonathan may seem desperate to return to the purity of his early work, but is he also, despite being married, hoping to achieve this by rekindling the affair that he so insensitively ended? And if not, what does he really want?
Affecting a high anxiety-driven demeanor, Arkin may not invite us to root for him as he self-servingly manipulates Patricia and unnerves Nick, but his pain and panic are palpable: a wonderful performance that compliments the one he gave as the disintegrating actor he played in Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene” only last season at GSP. McNenney has us feeling the re-opened wound caused by Jonathan’s appearance, but is also completely disarming as the college student who gives herself so freely to the young artist in his studio.
Perhaps the play’s most amusing and also poignant character is Nick, as played with great fits and latent starts by Christopher Curry. Heidi Armbruster makes an indelible impression as the aggressively baiting and agitating Grete. While I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what “Sight Unseen” is about, I can guess: the price one pays for fame is the loss of the soul. That seems to work in the light of Jonathan’s final and most reprehensible act (that I won’t divulge) near the play’s resolve. It would be nice to see what Saint would do with Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Dinner with Friends.”
“Sight Unseen,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, February 15. $28 to $66. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.