“…These art lovers, these poor, unsuspecting–rather, rich, unsuspecting–patrons have bought, sight unseen, a painting you have not yet painted?” This revelation about the nature of the commercial art world occurs at a moment of high tension in Sight Unseen, written by Donald Margulies and directed by Dorothy Lyman. This play confronts this issue of the value of modern art in addition to many other significant topics. The play is a deeply moving and relevant work of theater. The narrative begins with Jonathan arriving at the home of his college lover, Patricia, and her husband, Nick, in England. Jonathan has become a successful American artist while Patricia and her husband are struggling archaeologists. Even before this first encounter in the chilly English countryside, Jonathan has haunted this modest home: a painting that he had painted for Patty back during their college days accents their mantle. Their long-defunct relationship haunts her current marriage.
All of the performances are strong. Jonathan Todd Ross, who plays Jonathan, does a superb job of balancing his character's extreme likeability with a level of smarminess that keeps the character at an uncomfortable arms’ length from fellow characters and audience members alike. The slighted husband, played by Brent Vimtrup, is an interesting figure, a compelling mixture of emotional turmoil and comic relief. Laurie Schaefer plays up Patricia’s wounded soul while Bryn Boice makes Grete a confrontational and worthy foe for Jonathan in his artistic playing field.
The set is realistic, down to the most minute detail. It portrays the English country kitchen in the home where Patricia and Nick live, evoking its spirit while depicting its outward appearance. The same set is also always present in the background, even when scenes do not take place in this home. From one perspective, the play would benefit from being able to change setting. On another, the constant presence of this locale reminds us that no matter how much this play attempts to reconnect with the past and reconstruct the future, these characters will permanently be defined by something that has happened in this site.
The story jumps in and out of time, rather than being told in chronological, linear fashion. The true beauty of this play is in its text. The dialogue is a kind of natural speech while still being deep, powerful poetry. The lines are at turns charming, engaging, provocative, and intellectually stimulating.
The most interesting aspect of the play is the fact that it is driven by such a compelling narrative and yet it is a tale that is already about to reach its logical conclusion in the play’s first scene. Because of this, it seems that the work actually intends to explore something else entirely from the plot points it presents. The theme that recurs time and time again, besides the issue of the value of art, is an attempt to come to terms with what it means to be a Jew in America. Jonathan is torn between his desire to assimilate and involve himself with a non-Jewish woman and his determination to be true to the Jewish identity that his mother wished he would assume. His existence and his art are marked by Jewish symbols, ones with which even Jonathan is not sure he is able to come to terms.
Margulies's play is a meaningful work of drama. It tells a compelling tale of the intricacies of the pleasures and pains created by interpersonal relationships. It is also a stimulating exploration of the place of art in the contemporary American landscape as well as an insightful study of the Jewish experience. This play is worth giving a listen to, even sight unseen.