Chronological 'Sight Unseen' litters stage with loose ends
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
The Readers' Theater production of Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen" at Army Community Theatre packs all the good stuff into the back of the performance and leaves the stage littered with loose ends, like bodies at the end of "Hamlet."
This comes partly from the script's twisting and turning examination of personal and artistic integrity and the decision by director Vanita Rae Smith to present the scenes in chronological order rather than in their original flashbacks.
Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for his "Dinner With Friends" and received a Pulitzer nomination for "Sight Unseen." But the show could not attract a popular audience and played only two months on Broadway in 2004. That might be due to its difficult verbal interplay and a central character that — in the end — is far less honorable than he presents himself.
Jonathan (read by Michael Burnett) is a contemporary American painter who rises from college student to international acclaim in the years between 1975 and 1990. His canvases are said to illustrate the "emptiness and spiritual deadness of American life in the mid-20th century." A nude sex act between a black man and a white woman in a desecrated Jewish cemetery comes in for biting analysis.
It's ambiguous whether the sex is consensual or a rape. One observer notes the woman's hands are clenched into fists. Another artistic skeptic disagrees, "they're not necessarily fists, they could just be poorly drawn hands."
But while Jonathan's work has attracted a waiting list of clients willing to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a painting "sight unseen," their creator has reached a level of creative confusion. "I've lost my way since my father died. All the disappointable people are gone. There is no one left to shock."
He thinks he might rekindle a spark by going back to the touchstone work of his student years — a nude study of the woman who shared his bed until he determined he no longer loved her.
Patricia (Sylvia Hormann-Alper) has been living outside London and exploring anthropological digs with her husband Nick (Richard Pellett). Jonathan arrives for a short visit, intending to buy, borrow or steal back the portrait he had given to Patricia many years earlier.
This is where Margulies begins his play, but we don't reach it in Smith's restructuring until deep into the first act. Playing out the early scenes in linear order rather than in retrospect deprives the story of much of its bite. The early passion of Jonathan and Patricia's posing session and their later bitter break-up lack interest without knowing what each has become 15 years later.
The dialogue finally picks up spice with Nick's sardonic views on art, Americans, wealth and fame. He and Patricia earn a meager living by sifting through a "late-medieval rubbish dump" while Jonathan rakes in thousands from "poor — no, rich — art lovers."
One suspects that a full production would be primarily a character study and secondarily an issue play. But this chronological reading mainly heats up, boils over, and leaves behind an unanswered mess.