Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Donald Marguiles' Superior Sight Unseen Illuminated by Centenary Stage Production
The very prickly and terribly self-centered protagonist is artist Jonathan Waxman. His success and reputation are such that a list of collectors are lined up to purchase each of his new paintings "sight unseen." In England for a major gallery retrospective of his work, we find Waxman in a cold farmhouse in Norfolk visiting his college girlfriend Patricia whom he hasn't seen or contacted in fifteen years. The financially struggling Patricia is married discontentedly to Nick, an older, socially inept fellow archeologist. Patricia, who still carries a torch for Jonathan, allows that her desire to remain in England was a major consideration in her decision to marry Nick. Jonathan, who is visiting with them for a nefarious, ulterior motive, is cruelly unconcerned about any damage which his presence or actions might do to them.
The action flows freely back and forth in time. The second scene in which Jonathan is interviewed at a London art gallery by Grete, a German art critic, is chronologically the last scene in the play (the interview scene is concluded in the second scene of the second act). The third scene occurs in the farmhouse one hour before the first scene. The fourth (and last) first act scene occurs fifteen years earlier in the Brooklyn home of Jonathan and his parents at the end of his romance with Patricia. The terribly poignant final scene of the play depicts their first meeting seventeen years before the present.
How is it that one can care so strongly about Jonathan when he is such a total louse? Marguiles' honest and heartfelt insights into this surrogate creation enable us to sympathize with Jonathan and understand the tortured soul which drives him. Although very specifically tied here to the Jewish experience in America, one need not be a member of any particular group to relate to the mixture of pride and sensitivity, irrational self-hatred and need for acceptance from the other which cuts deeply into the psyche of the reviled societal outsider. Marguiles' Jonathan is troubled about the values and heritage which he has abandoned in the course of his life's journey. In his thematically related later play Brooklyn Boy, Marguiles rues his protagonist's inability to return to his abandoned heritage.
Contradicting any inference that Waxman is totally Marguiles is the depth, understanding and sympathy with which Marguiles draws Patricia and Nick. We are compelled to care about this living, breathing odd couple who are striving to give meaning to frustrated lives.
Sight Unseen plays far more powerfully in the confines of Centenary's intimate theatre than it did in its 2004 Broadway production. It may well be that intimacy is the principal reason. However, the performances of the roles of Jonathan, Patricia and Nick are uncannily spot on. I feel like a voiceover from an old movie trailer as I write that Gary Littman is Jonathan Waxman. Littman embodies the tense, aggressive, outwardly cocksure, too readily offended, manipulative artistic genius Waxman. He projects an inner rage that is always present just below the surface, barely under control even when things are going his way. Littman fully prepares us for the moment when Jonathan angrily lashes out at the German Grete (while she is interviewing him) for what he perceives as her anti-Semitism. Whether her statement is anti-Semitic or not, Grete certainly nails Jonathan's mindset when she states (with clear reference to him) that Jews on the inside tend to think of themselves as outsiders.
Dina Ann Comolli captures the longing and disappointment which have already formed a permanent cloud over Patricia's life. As forlorn as her hope is, Comolli moves us when she reveals through her intonations that she still longs for a reconciliation with the indifferent, now married with family, Jonathan. When asked if she ever regrets not having married Jonathan, she responds "no, not me." However, with a nervous shake of the head and the slight, panicky rise in her voice, Comolli tells us that the only honest answer is "yes." Comolli is most appealing and moving in the final scene, the start of her affair with Jonathan. The contrast between her beaten down early middle age and her radiant hopeful youth is heartbreaking.
Steven L. Barron's Nick is fully realized. His annoyingly passive-aggressive Nick makes us as uncomfortable as it makes Patricia to have Jonathan find her with him. Later, when Nick fights desperately to save his marriage, Barron fully engages our sympathies. Shannon Noecker is a strong, confident presence in the role of Grete. Although Jonathan clearly jumps the gun when he accuses Grete of anti-Semitism (the bigotry appears to belong to him) Noecker's supercilious expression and proud posturing when the interview is terminated imply that Jonathan may have been right in spite of himself. (Although Jonathan is impressed with Grete's excellent English, I think that a trace of a German accent would be appropriate for her).
Steven Dennis seems to have captured every nuance of Marguiles text. Dennis has elicited a seamless ensemble performance from his fine cast. The design work is impeccable. Gordon Danielli's two tiered set is solid, evocative, smartly laid out and eminently playable. Will Rothfuss' lighting design is fluid and unobtrusive. Julia Sharp's costumes accurately reflect the characters and their (changing) age and status.
Donald Marguiles is in the front rank of today's American playwrights, and Sight Unseen, the 1992 winner of the Obie Award for Best American Play, is one of his finest plays. It is being presented by the Centenary Stage Company in its Hackettstown home in an exemplary, illuminatingly acted and staged production. It is surely one of the dramatic highlights of the current NJ theatre season, and well worth your time and attention.
Sight Unseen continues performances through November 20, 2005 (Eves: Thurs. 7:30 p.m. Fri./Sat. 8 PM; Mats.: Sun. 2:30 PM) at Centenary Stage Company in residence at Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900; online www.centenarystageco.org.
Sight Unseen By Donald Marguiles; Directed By Steven