Donald Margulies, one of the most accomplished American playwrights, is probably less famous than he should be, in spite of a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends (2000) and notable achievements such as Collected Stories (1996) and Time Stands Still (2010). It’s unlikely that the shoestring production of Sight Unseen at the charming Access Theater will add significantly to his reputation, but an exceptional cast and astute direction make the quaint, four-flight walkup worthwhile for theater lovers. (An elevator is also available.)
The play focuses on art and the various ways of looking at it. In Norfolk, England, a renowned artist named Jonathan Waxman pays an unexpected visit to the home of his former girlfriend many years after their college romance burned out. Clad in a baggy sweater, the girlfriend, Patricia (Nancy Nagrant), now looks a bit frumpy, and she is married to a quirky archaeologist named Nick (Richard Brundage); they live in a house that is underheated and far from London’s bustling atmosphere. Nagrant, however, puts on a bright smile that spreads warmth even though she secretly doesn’t understand the reason Jonathan dumped her years before, nor why he has chosen to step back into her life.
Jonathan, played by Lee Seymour, is strapping, tall, and engaging, with a large reservoir of diffidence. Although acclaimed in the U.S., he has come to England for an important exhibition of his artwork that is about to open in London. He has decided to look up Patricia after all these years “to apologize.” During his visit, he discovers that a student painting he made of Patricia when they were new acquaintances hangs in her home, and it’s not bad for student work. In the scenes that follow, Margulies takes the audience on a time trip back to their earlier lives, and forward to an interview during the exhibition that Jonathan has with Grete, a German journalist (Ally Carey, who makes the most of only two scenes and a persuasive Teutonic accent). Each trip adds a layer of insight into who the characters really are.
During his overnight stay with Patricia, Jonathan finds himself subject to baiting by Nick, whose hostility is scarcely masked by his tone of intellectual probing—he thinks Jonathan’s nudes are “pornography,” although he is intrusively interested in determining how much the paintings are worth. As Jonathan plays defense, the play’s give-and-takes touch on the various aspects of art—the financial, between Nick and Jonathan; the personal, between Jonathan and Patty, who was his model and, she says, “your muse”; and Jonathan and his public, in the scenes with the journalist Grete. If that makes it sound rather dry, it’s not. Under director Jerry Heymann, the actors squeeze out plenty of juice in the confrontations.
Seymour is adept at finding Jonathan’s youthful insecurity, his yearning to escape from his Jewish family, and his guilt after he has done so. He demonstrates composure under Nick’s assault, but it’s clear that his success hasn’t brought him happiness. From his late father, who stapled family photos to the wall in his honor—and ruined them—to the prickly interview with Grete, which churns up German-Jewish tensions, Jonathan’s life and career are full of complexity, and Seymour does the part justice. In spite of one’s sympathy for him, there’s a point late in the play that involves his student painting, when Seymour deftly introduces a darker side to the character.
Brundage is annoying and comic as the shambling, condescending Nick, and his scenes with Seymour are fraught with tension. Older than Patricia, he cannot hide his hostility as he tries to keep his younger, more attractive wife, from re-engaging with her ex. “I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve stared at the fire and imagined that painting in the flames,” he tells Jonathan.
Nagrant captures not just Patricia’s warmth, but the way she uses it seductively to push and nudge for what she wants, culminating in the final scene, of their original meeting; she is just as good with Patricia’s discomfort at this unexpected visit.
In spite of a small budget, Brian Dudkiewicz’s set is apt and cleverly done. The only misstep is a bed at Jonathan's house that is far too small for a young man whose height surely shot up before he left home. That’s a minor quibble. It’s Margulies’s story, the actors, and the direction that make this production such an absorbing evening of theater.
The New Light Theater Project’s 25th-anniversary production of Sight Unseen plays through Feb. 25 at the Access Theater (380 Broadway at White Street, on the fourth floor). Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets are $15 and may be obtained by calling (630) 632-1459 or visiting NewLightTheaterProject.com.