Jonathan Waxman may be having a breakdown. A successful painter with his first European retrospective, he fears he's already passe. To his great annoyance, people keep insisting that his painting of a black man and white woman having sex in a desecrated Jewish graveyard depicts a rape and, as a work of art, is a vulgar sham. Among those people: Patricia (Elizabeth Norment), the college girlfriend and muse that he abandoned and now, in his mid-life crisis, seeks out; and Grete (Celia Shuman), a German journalist who smiles and shows cleavage while grilling him mercilessly just at the moment he is falling apart.
"Sight Unseen," Donald Margulies' riveting 1991 play, centers on Jonathan's denial of his looming breakdown and the mistakes that led him there. The title refers to the practice of patrons who pre-buy the works of a famous artist before they've been painted. Call it commodities trading or a refusal to distinguish between profit and actual achievement--Margulies finds his main character knee-deep in the art-world hype and all that goes with it. The story goes back and forward in time to let us see just how Jonathan (Stephen Rowe) let his values slide, how he started to become the phony that we increasingly suspect he is.
Fascinating, half-buried problems bubble to the surface for each of the other three characters in "Sight Unseen" as well. Patricia now lives in a remote, cold corner of England that suits her emotional exile. She hasn't yet let go of her love for the brilliant young painter who dismissed her, ostensibly because she wasn't Jewish. But Margulies digs up evidence to show that the young Patricia's way of plunging into life simply scared Jonathan. So Patricia no longer plunges, but spends her time digging up ruins with her husband and fellow archeologist, Nick. Intelligent but socially inept, Nick (Bruce Burkhartsmeier) has spent his married life emasculated by the shadow of Jonathan, cast partially by the artist's first painting of Patricia, displayed in their home. The lives of all three characters hang, in one way or another, on what Jonathan decides to do with that painting.
Jonathan's grilling by Grete, the play's most mysterious character, provides two smart, tense scenes that swirl with innuendo, ideas and clues. As they argue about the Holocaust and the meaning of art, the interview grows more and more dangerous. The artist, it begins to seem, has been using his Jewish identity--i.e. paranoia--to disengage from the world ever since his break-up with Patricia. As for Grete--is she a good and ruthless student of art or a Nazi? Both are revealed as dissemblers masquerading as truth-tellers. In fact, both have good points to make.
Michael Bloom first directed the play for South Coast Repertory, which commissioned it, and then for Off Broadway the next year. This production lacks some of the crackle of the New York version. Scenes wind down when they should end with an emotional wallop.
Rowe, who originated the role at South Coast Rep, should be the engine that drives the play. His Jonathan, though, lacks the arrogance, or even the surface confidence, that an international success would instill. More Long Island than Brooklyn, his accent is prissy, and he seems to shuffle when he walks. In short, he's missing the stature one associates with an art-world star. He needs to sparkle next to the bumpkin Nick, but the balance is off here. Nick, with his eccentric opinions on art, is the one you'd most like to book on a talk show.
Another missing piece of the puzzle is Norment's young Patricia in the flashback scenes. Where she needs to be truly carefree or light she seems forced, already desperate not to lose Jonathan, as if she knew it would take up 20 years of her life to get over him (and this raises the question: Is the playwright exaggerating the extent of a woman's heartbreak?) .
Burkhartsmeier's Nick is funny and interesting, whether monosyllabic or in a drunken, rambling, hostile mood. Shuman's Grete keeps you guessing as to the extent of the journalist's malevolence.
Set designer Matt Flynn provides Patricia and Nick's no-amenities country kitchen with a painterly background to reinforce Jonathan's presence in their lives.
Despite some tentative pacing in this production, "Sight Unseen" remains a play of ideas and emotional complexity. It examines things that are full of ambivalence, but with vision both clear and direct.
* "Sight Unseen," Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m. (No Sunday evening show Aug. 7). Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. on July 31, Aug. 7 and 21. Ends Aug. 21. $17.50-$21.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Stephen Rowe: Jonathan
Elizabeth Norment: Patricia
Bruce Burkhartsmeier: Nick
Celia Shuman: Grete
An Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production by Donald Margulies. Directed by Michael Bloom. Set by Matt Flynn. Costumes by Susan Snowden. Lighting by Brian Gale. Music and sound by Michael Roth. Production stage manager Steffani Coltrin. Produced by Ron Sossi.