There is a stealthy design to Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen," a rich and personal new play that opened Saturday on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
It has the earmarks of a jigsaw puzzle. It leaps back and forth through time, with characters who say one thing to mean another, and has meaningful looks and pregnant, if-not-quite-Pinteresque pauses. And it knows how to bide its time.
This latest piece by the author of "The Model Apartment" (Los Angeles Theatre Center, 1988), "Found a Peanut" (Back Alley, 1986) and "What's Wrong With This Picture" (Back Alley, 1988, and currently at San Diego's Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre) is a form of dramatic impressionism.
It pits a super-successful American painter, Jonathan Waxman (Stephen Rowe), against his future and his past.
Jonathan, who, at the ripe old age of 37 is having a retrospective in London, takes the opportunity to look up a former lover living in the English countryside. Patricia (Elizabeth Norment) is an American archeologist now married to a British archeologist, the taciturn Nick (Randy Oglesby), and the two seem something less than thrilled by Jonathan's visit.
The play turns into a fascinating deconstruction of time and events in which the past returns to haunt the present and all that went wrong between Jonathan, who is Jewish, and Patricia, who is not, is re-examined in the context of that cultural difference.
We can't call it a religious difference, because it's clear that neither of them is religiously inclined. But at the heart of the break-up was Jonathan's inability to either sign on as a Jew, or to become assimilated. And in the course of this struggle with identity, he loses not only the girl (whom he hurts badly) but a good part of himself.
Jonathan's meteoric rise to the megabuck stratosphere of artistic success confuses him even more. And this visit to his old flame, now locked in a loveless marriage, does nothing to clear things up. It merely stirs up the mud in the waters between Patricia and Nick (who would have lived happily ever after if he had never laid eyes on Jonathan), and stirs the knife in Patricia's unhealed wounds.
The theme is that thoroughly modern one of cultural dispossession: Unable to be in one culture what we were told we were in another, we become less and less sure of what we have become or will become. As a successful artist, Jonathan has lost his compass, the impulse that made him paint; he hopes that seeing Patricia will help him find it. That it doesn't should come as no surprise.
But under Michael Bloom's carefully measured direction, getting from there to here is always an absorbing journey. Margulies mines thoughts like artifacts in an archeological dig of the soul. He pumps up the personal scenes with fragmentary ones of an overintellectual interview with a German named Grete (a steely Sabina Weber) whose latent anti-Semitism sets off all kinds of reactions in Jonathan. The juxtaposition works beautifully, with one aspect of the play subtly informing the other.
Margulies has said of "Sight Unseen" that it deals with his familiar obsessions in a new, more mature way. One can only agree. This is easily his most interesting--and mature--piece of writing to date, the more rewarding since it is also a commissioned play (by SCR) and those can be dicey as art.
No need to worry. The title ambiguously refers both to Waxman's yet-unpainted paintings, that, in the skyrocketing art market of the '80s, already carried a price tag--and to the elusive heritage that shapes his present through his past, but leaves his future in doubt. It's a nice image, which slips through our consciousness like water through a sieve.
Production values are simple but efficient and Bloom's staging sees to it that body language is largely what's spoken here.
Oglesby's Nick is often funnier for what he fails to tell us than for the words Margulies puts in his mouth. Rowe's bottled-up Jonathan walks around in a quasi-permanent state of tormented embarrassment, apologizing for his emotional failures, his new-found affluence, his life. But it is Norment's super-vulnerable Patricia who is hardest to forget. She presents a forthright, unsentimental, often heartbreaking portrait of a once-joyous and expansive woman, beaten down by rejections that have inflicted irreversible damage.
The issue of a painting of a black man and a white woman making love in a Jewish cemetery that has been defaced is the focus of much discussion. It is a bit of symbolism about innocence and corruption that often gilds the lily. But despite such occasional obfuscations, "Sight Unseen," has 20/20 vision.
Stephen Rowe: Jonathan Waxman
Elizabeth Norment: Patricia
Randy Oglesby: Nick
Sabina Weber: Grete
A new play by Donald Margulies. Director Michael Bloom. Sets Cliff Faulkner. Lights Tom Ruzika. Costumes Ann Bruice. Wigs Victoria Wood. Music/Sound Michael Roth. Dramaturg Jerry Parch. Production Manager Edward Lapine. Stage manager Andy Tighe. Assistant stage manager Randall K. Lum.