Review: ‘Sight Unseen’ Paints a Compelling Portrait of an Artist in Crisis
By Diana Mott, Contributing Writer, February 14, 2017
Sight Unseen, the classic American play by Donald Margulies, examines the emotional and artistic crises of Jonathan Waxman (Richard Brundage), an artist so bankable that he is not only being honored with a retrospective of his work at a swank London gallery but he also has a long list of patrons who have purchased his future work, sight unseen, for huge amounts of money.
But Jonathan has lost his way, artistically and emotionally, and invites himself to the home of his first love and artistic muse, Patricia (Nancy Nagrant) and her husband Nick (the delightful Lee Seymour) in the English countryside. They are archeologists living frugally near their excavation, an ancient rubbish pile. “There is so much we can learn from what people throw away,” Patricia tells Jonathan. In this first scene, these three characters delicately spar and reveal undercurrents about their relationships to each other, and to themselves. Jonathan once gave Patricia a portrait he made of her, an early work that he hopes will be the key to solving his artistic crisis, a painting that is precious to Patricia and a source of pain and loathing for Nick.
Marguiles’s non-linear narrative structure moves the story back and forth in time, taking us on a journey as Jonathan searches through his past in the hope of discovering how he lost his way. Patricia and Nick become inextricably entangled in this subtle, psychologically complex exploration of the artist’s relationship to his art, to his personal life, to what it means to be a son, and to what it means to be Jewish in America.
In the sizzling second scene, Jonathan is being interviewed in the art gallery by an intensely unflappable German critic named Grete (Ally Carey). She demands that Jonathan reconcile his material success with his hiring of a press agent long before he became a success. She cross-examines him about his bleak, and possibly sensational painting that many have interpreted as a brutal interracial rape in a Jewish cemetery. The razor-sharp dialogue keeps the audience raptly attentive as hints of possible anti-Semitism and legitimate attacks on Jonathan’s artistic integrity cause him to spew invective against his own audience and the system he has come to represent.
Patricia refers to herself as “the sacrificial shiksa” and is, perhaps, the human connection and the emotional heart of the play. Before Jonathan leaves with her beloved painting in hand, she reveals how deeply satisfied and thrilled she had felt to be Jonathan’s love and muse and how much she had sacrificed in the hope that it could be recaptured. The painting becomes the symbol of Patricia’s youthful love, the key to Jonathan’s artistic integrity, and Nick’s constant reminder that he is unloved. Relinquishing it is harrowing for both husband and wife.
The end of the play takes us back to the beginning. Jonathan, a burgeoning young artist in a college studio art class, meets a lovely young life model, when he was still free enough to imagine all of art and life’s unseen hope and possibilities.
The actors are all fine, especially Nancy Nagrant, who deftly navigates the exuberance of youthful Patricia and the heartbreaking poignancy of a middle-aged woman facing what she has sacrificed. But the star of this show is Mr. Margulies, who has made a timeless work that still enchants while making its audience sit up and pay attention.
Sight Unseen, produced by New Light Theater Project in association with The Access Theater, running until February 25, 2017 at The Access Theater, 380 Broadway in Tribeca. By Donald Margulies. Directed by Jerry Heymann; scenic design by Brian Dudkiewicz; costume design by Ashleigh Poteat; lighting design by Alison Hall; sound design by Andy Evan Cohen. Cast: Richard Brundage (Nick), Ally Carey (Grete), Nancy Nagrant (Patricia), Lee Seymour (Jonathan).
Cover: Lee Seymour and Nancy Nagrant in ‘Sight Unseen;’ photo: Hunter Canning.