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Sight Unseen, at the Biltmore

David Margulies's Sight Unseen was first performed at MTC twelve years ago, and I don't know how we missed it then, but we did, so we never saw Laura Linney in the play's smallest part, that of a German arts journalist named Grete. In the current MTC revival, Ms Linney has the much bigger role of Patricia, and is being billed as the star of the show. She is certainly the best-known of the four actors in the cast. But she is very well-matched by actors Ben Shankman and Byron Jennings, neither of whom is an unknown to theatre audiences here. Both have appeared on Broadway, Mr Shankman  as Hal in Proof, after its run on 55th Street, and Mr Jennings as Beverly Carlton in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, the revival that starred Nathan Lane (and inspired James Lipton to dust off Sherry!, the musical that he and Laurence Rosenthal had written but never managed to produce). I wasn't crazy about Mr Shankman's performance in Proof, partly because his role was more than a little dweebie, shy and recessive. And I hadn't much cared for The Loman Family Picnic, the only other play by Mr Margulies that I've seen. I was therefore as ready as anyone to sit through Sight Unseen for the sake of a strong performance by Ms Linney. What I got was a great production of a very good play. (Sight Unseen may turn out to be a great play, but only the passage of time, and more revivals, will make that clear.) This is what subscriptions are for: to protect the lazy from critics.

Sight Unseen is uncommonly well put together. Four scenes set in the same rustic Norfolk kitchen, separated by four other scenes that I'll get to in a minute, follow the sequence now, an hour before  now, several hours after now, and dawn of the day following now. These scenes make up the heart of the play, and concern the reunion of old lovers, with the woman's husband on hand to make a very awkward third. In a traditional approach to this material, the entire action would have taken place on the one set, and would have begun with the second of the four scenes that I've just mentioned - a scene between the husband and the wife, in which, all but beside herself with furious anticipation, she mops the floor while flip-flopping about whether to let her old boyfriend sleep on the futon in front of the fire or in their bedroom upstairs. It would have ended with her drying her tears as the former lover, who has revealed himself to be morally bankrupt, takes his leave. I daresay, however, that we'd have become awfully tired of this threesome and their discomforts if the four scenes had been stretched to two-act length. And we would not know just how far the old lover, an artist at the top of his fame, had fallen. That's where the other scenes come in. With each act beginning in the farmhouse kitchen, the last scene of each act takes place years before, when the lovers broke up (the end of the first act) and when they fell in love (finale), respectively. The second scene in each act is one half of an interview, conducted four days after now at a posh London gallery, that the artist has with Grete. A buxom bombshell, she is also a penetrating interrogator, and she so provokes the artist about his past that he walks out on her. (She's got it all on tape and looks like the cat who ate the canary.) In the final scene of the play, Patricia, a college student who has just signed up to do modeling for art majors, comes on to the very shy Jonathan, who has been painting her all afternoon. Now, to end a play with the beginning of a love affair that the audience knows to be doomed could be extremely triste, as Harold Pinter's Betrayal proves, but Mr Margolies contrives to send his audience out laughing: the sadness to come is completely swamped by the humor of alien encounter.

For Jonathan is Jewish and Patricia is a shiksa. Is that why they couldn't make it as a couple? Not exactly. But Patricia is certainly the wrong shiksa for Jonathan. She sees life as an adventure; for Jonathan, it's an escape. Her nonchalant announcement that she's not majoring in anything because she has decided to be a 'dilettante' is amusing to her but arrogant and incomprehensible to him, for he has grown up in that ne plus ultra of grim responsibility, the Flatbush of Jewish refugees. As we already know when this final scene takes place, Jonathan will dynamite his way out of his parents' ghetto (his word) by a series of shocking paintings. (Paintings that we never see but that sound a lot like the work that made Eric Fischl famous when Mr Margulies was writing this play.) Jonathan is subversive, ambivalent, and uncertain - characteristics that Patricia can hardly imagine, and which she certainly wouldn't regard as healthy. But offering her naked body to his art has turned her on, and perhaps his reserve has lighted a match. Even when the curtain comes down, with Jonathan helplessly taking over the unbuttoning of her bodice, we can't be certain that Patricia will ever stop loving him, or that she'll ever have the wisdom to realize that Jonathan broke up with her out of suffocating desperation.

A more important matter that we can't be certain about is why Jonathan decides to pay Patricia the visit that opens the play, seventeen years later. By this time, Patricia has become an archeologist working in England, married to a colleague named Nick. There are two possible explanations for Jonathan's visit. The one that Jonathan offers is his need to apologize for breaking up with her. This isn't altogether plausible, as we see when he casually admits to having been in London five years before without attempting to contact her. But his father has just died, and he finds himself in London for the opening of his first show away from home. So why not? The other possibility emerges in the second scene, when Grete remarks that there's a very early painting in the show, not listed in the catalogue, that she finds interesting. We know what this painting must be - the one hanging (offstage) over Patricia's hearth. In the previous scene, Jonathan seems intrigued to find out that she still has this first offering of his love, and then fascinated by its maturity, but as the play goes on his surprise seems more and more disingenuous. Talking with Grete, he claims that Patricia's painting - part of his personal collection, he says - was a pivotal, seminal work, the true beginning of his career. Later, he will tell Patricia that he has lost whatever it was that he discovered through it, and this we have no reason to doubt. At the beginning of the last farmhouse scene, we see Jonathan try to sneak out of the house with the picture neatly taped up in newspaper. The tape and the newspaper don't look like things that Jonathan found in the farmhouse, and we're not surprised when Patricia accuses him of theft.

But Jonathan does not wrest the picture from her by force. Patricia yields, rather to Nick's desire to rid their home of a baleful reminder. Their marriage has never been complete; Jonathan hovers over it like an incubus. Having left the United States almost as if she couldn't bear living in the same country with her former lover, Patricia went to England and then married Nick at the expiry of her student visa, in order to be able to stay in England. (Her life has taken on a subsistence grimness, establishing that she can no longer be mistaken for a dilettante.) Nick adores her but she discourages his advances. In the first conversation between the two men, Nick asks Jonathan if he has any idea how often Nick has wanted to cast Jonathan's painting into the fire. In another play, Nick's hostility, which, reeling as it does from insincere obsequiousness to sneering sarcasm, borders on the insane, would lead to physical violence, and the threat of it kept our audience on the edge of its seats. Love and resentment have transformed an ordinarily shy and reticent man into a terrifyingly unpredictable host. When, in the third scene, Patricia wonders if she ought to let Jonathan have the bed that she shares with her husband, Nick replies with deadly finality: "He already has it." Nick is all the more powerful for not being on stage all the time even in the farmhouse scenes - you never know when he's going to pop onstage.

The performances were outstanding. Ben Shankman realized the full complexity of Jonathan's moral disorder. Usually on the defensive, trying to convince Patricia and Nick that his success and wealth don't mean that much to him (utter nonsense), or trying to fend off their attacks (usually with supercilious artspeak), Jonathan gets to be demonstrative, and then explosive, in his interview with Grete. Her questions (which are always appended to lengthy statements), are obviously intended to needle him. First she belabors his Jewishness, provoking inconsistent answers. The Holocaust is clearly the big event in Jonathan's consciousness, but because he hasn't worked out its meaning for him, he falls into exploiting it opportunistically when it suits him, and completely denying that his art is 'Jewish' in any way when it doesn't. He is similarly confused about 'the business of art,' and when Grete asks him why he hired a publicist two years before he became famous (implying that it was the publicity that made him famous and thus stripping him of the mantle of social critic), the interview quickly becomes unbearable. Talking ever more quickly and building with a finely graded crescendo to a rage that only breaking off the interview could control, Mr Shankman gave a performance that ought to have won awards. (He was also very funny in the last scene, and he got a huge laugh from our audience for a beautifully delivered routine.) That Nick is so frightening owed largely to Byron Jennings's tightly coiled presence. And Laura Linney, a star indeed, demonstrated an operatic range of emotions, with all the unoperatic gradations in between, playing a woman in search of comfort with another man but never finding it.

It is no deprecation to say that Ana Reeder was a big treat as Grete. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, with help from Douglas W. Schmidt (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Pat Collins (lighting) and John Gromada (music), Sight Unseen was the highlight of the MTC season. (July 2004)

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