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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Proposition: Sight Unseen Deserves Recognition
as an American Classic

Also see Bob's review of Marcovicci Sings Rodgers and Hart

Sight Unseen
Kathleen McNenny, Christopher Curry and Matthew Arkin
The George Street Playhouse is currently reviving David Margulies' 1992 Obie award winner for Best American Play, Sight Unseen.

Having now seen this powerful, multi-faceted drama four times, I am convinced that it possesses the depth and universality which defines classic stage literature.  The current David Saint directed production is quite good and can be recommended without reservation.  However, it must be noted that it falls a bit short in capturing in full the anguish and accuracy of Margulies' writing.

Sight Unseen addresses deep-seated concerns central to Margulies' very being with unflinching introspection. Sight Unseen possesses the clear ring of painful truth.

Its prickly, manipulative and terribly self-centered protagonist is the American artist Jonathan Waxman. His success and reputation are such that collectors have contracted to purchase his future paintings "sight unseen." Waxman has come to England for a major London gallery retrospective of his work. We meet this Jewish artist in a cold farmhouse in Norfolk where he is visiting his gentile college girlfriend Patricia.  He hasn't seen or contacted her 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 is at the farmhouse strictly for his own selfish purpose.  He is coldly 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 (this scene is concluded in the second scene of act two). In the third scene, we see Patricia and Nick in the farmhouse one hour before Jonathan's arrival. The fourth (and last) scene of act one occurs fifteen years earlier in the Brooklyn home of Jonathan and his parents at the brutal conclusion of his youthful relationship with Patricia. The illuminating final scene of the play depicts their first meeting two years earlier.

Jonathan is a pretty reprehensible person.  However, Margulies has drawn him with such dimension that we are able to relate to his tortured psyche. The play specifically speaks to the Jewish experience of America. And yet, one need not be a member of any particular group to relate to the mixture of pride and oversensitivity, and the irrational self-hatred and desire for acceptance which cuts deeply into the psyche of the reviled societal outsider. Margulies' 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, despite his best efforts, Margulies' protagonist is unable to return to his abandoned heritage.

Matthew Arkin performs with competence, but fails to inhabit the role of Jonathan from within.  The good looking actor displays neither the angst nor the argot needed to fully flesh out the second generation artist son of insular, limited working class Brooklyn Jews of a recent era.  In the first scene, Arkin has to imitate the Yiddish accent of Jonathan's father.  Arkin's inability to muster a convincing imitation distances him from his role early on.

Kathleen McNenny and Christopher Curry are a sympathetic Patricia and Nick.  McNenny is particularly so in the moment when Patricia recognizes that she must stop hurting Nick.  Heidi Armbruster nicely interprets Grete with appropriate ambiguity as a shrewd interviewer who knows just how and when to push Jonathan's buttons.

Michael Anania's complex revolving set is very effective in depicting the play's several locations.  Its overhang dispenses leaves to introduce the climactic scene depicting the time when Jonathan and Patricia first met.  Anania's set even provides the space on which to project Jonathan's father's wall of family pictures.

It is the meaningful issues which register most strongly in this production.  There is a witty scene in which Nick taunts Jonathan about the quality of his paintings during which the question of what makes good art is debated at length. It is most engaging and thought provoking.  At their first meeting, "shiksa-shy" Jonathan recoils when Patricia suggests that they go back to his room to make love. She responds that it is only one night that she is proposing, "it is not about the future of the Jewish race."  He responds, "Maybe it is."  It is.

The Brooklyn born Donald Margulies is clearly the theatre's spiritual successor to Arthur Miller.   Margulies has staked out a claim to that role with his monumental, deeply moving The Loman Family Picnic.  Their shared topics of art, celebrity, commerce, marriage, morality, survival and loss—and a Jewish perspective—bind Miller and Margulies together. Seeing Sight Unseen at George Street seventeen years after its initial production, I cannot help but think that the time may be at hand to recognize that Margulies belongs alongside Miller in the pantheon of great American playwrights.

Sight Unseen continues performances Evenings Tuesday-Saturday 8 p.m.(except Thurs. 1/29)/ Sunday 7 p.m.(except 2/15)/ Matinees: 2 PM Thursday (except 1/22; 2/5), Saturday, Sunday through February 15, 2009 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717 ; online: www.GSPonline.org.

Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies; directed by David Saint

Cast
Jonathan…………….Matthew Arkin
Nick………………Christopher Curry
Patricia…………Kathleen McNenny
Grete……………..Heidi Armbruster


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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