Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set design by Douglas W. Schmidt. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Pat Collins. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Cast: Byron Jennings, Laura Linney, Ana Reeder, Ben Shenkman.
It's difficult to predict reactions to any artistic endeavor when viewing it for the first time. You're just as likely to love it and feel that nothing else will ever quite compare as you are to dislike it or, perhaps worst of all, discover that it fails to meet your expectations. Even if you've liked the creators' works in the past, their next piece won't necessarily connect with you.
That's the biggest problem with the new Manhattan Theatre Club production of Sight Unseen at the Biltmore Theatre. MTC gave Donald Margulies's play its New York premiere Off-Broadway in 1992, where it had a lengthy run and won a number of awards. There's much that's promising in the show's first Broadway presentation, but it's ultimately a less than completely satisfying experience whether you're revisiting the piece or experiencing it for the first time.
In just about every way this is a top-notch, professional production. A world-class director (Daniel Sullivan), a first-rate cast (Ben Shenkman, Laura Linney, Byron Jennings, and Ana Reeder), and great designers (Douglas W. Schmidt for sets, Jess Goldstein for costumes, and Pat Collins for lights) are all present. Margulies's play hasn't even really dated; many of its issues - the battles between art and commerce, truth and sensationalism, reality and fantasy - have always been, and will always be, relevant.
But this production never really connects with a fresh, biting immediacy that allows the play to feel as endemic to the early 2000s as it must have been to the early 1990s. Rather, the tale of superstar artist Jonathan Waxman (Shenkman), who visits the English home of his one-time flame and muse Patricia (Linney), feels a bit hollow. The scenes in a London art gallery, in which Jonathan interviews with a German reporter named Grete (Reeder), come across as posturing and labored, missing dramatic connections that will tie them into the rest of the show. The play's fractured time scheme, which covers seventeen or so years in a non-linear fashion, feels like it's interrupting the story rather than enhancing it. The result is a staid show that, while it makes few wrong moves, doesn't make many right ones.
One unquestionable success is Linney, who's graduated to Patricia after playing Grete in the original production. She flawlessly layers Patricia's feelings of love, hatred, awe, and torment into a richly personal portrayal that gives the play a strong emotional anchor. She's equally effective playing both the younger and older Patricia, and is doing what is perhaps some of her strongest-ever acting work here; the role feels tailor-made to her particular talents.
Jennings also displays a great deal of outward strength as Patricia's new husband Nick. He's excellent at masking an inner uncertainty about his future with a woman still, in some ways, in love with one of the world's most famous artists. Jennings's Nick is simplistic and straightforward, but never overly so - that allows his outbursts, such as when he decries Jonathan's combative artistic style (in a thinly veiled attempt to hold on to Patricia) to cause sparks to fly.
The energy Jennings and Linney bring is not matched by Shenkman. Darker and edgier than Hal from Proof (whom Shenkman frequently seems to be channeling here), Jonathan is not above lying, stealing, and emotional and professional obfuscation, darker qualities that must be ready to erupt throughout. They're vital in the interview scenes with Grete, but here, those scenes have no teeth and never feel as heated and stifling as they should. Grete's invasive questioning into the ambiguity of Jonathan's work and his attitudes toward his audience, himself, and his own Jewish background don't seem to hurt Shenkman's Jonathan much.
Shenkman's far stronger in the scenes taking place in the past, before Jonathan has achieved much in the art world. Jonathan's gawkiness and immature anger seem more appropriate here, and Shenkman looks and sounds more comfortable as the younger, more naïve artist still trying to find his way and his art. The two scenes set in this time period, which close both of the show's acts, are important in thoroughly depicting Jonathan's character, but with six other scenes that still need to be addressed, the imbalance in Shenkman's characterization hurts the show.
The isolated moments of brilliance suggest that Sullivan had good ideas that just didn't quite coalesce. But that's damaging for a show that leaps around in time as much as this one does; there needs to be a smoothness that keeps the action continuous, even when it's not. Here, the somewhat lengthy scene changes give production a distracting, choppy feel that saps much of the energy that might otherwise sustain the show. Schmidt's sets, which draw nice contrasts in color, line, and angle to depict different stages in Jonathan and Patricia's lives, are nice, but are inadequate compensation for what's been lost. Goldstein's costumes and Collins's lights are more successful contributions.
Regardless, Margulies's play is intelligently written, and its strengths do often show through, but that's never quite enough. The overall effect of this mounting of Sight Unseen is similar to looking at a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Nice? Sure, but there's no substitute for the real thing.