On Theater: SCR revival is a 'Sight' for sore eyes

It's been 20 years, four other productions and a Pulitzer Prize since South Coast Repertory first introduced developing playwright Donald Margulies to its audiences with the world premiere of "Sight Unseen."

That introductory drama now is enjoying a superb revival at SCR under the direction of company co-founder David Emmes and performed by an exceptionally strong cast on the stage of the Julianne Argyros Theater.

"Sight Unseen" details the life and career of a famous artist seeking an important element of his past in the home of an ex-lover, now ensconced in rural England as the wife of an older and somewhat eccentric archaeologist. Tensions mount, particularly during moments of enforced silence, which Emmes engineers skillfully.

Margulies has introduced conflicts both of status and religious origin into this intellectual maelstrom of artistic and romantic conflict. His protagonist, the outrageously successful and embarrassingly wealthy Jonathan Waxman (Gregory Sims) clashes repeatedly with the play's three other characters as he attempts a return to his roots as an artist.

Sims delivers a highly arresting performance as his character reunites awkwardly with his onetime lover (Nancy Bell) and relates even more uncomfortably to her truculent digger mate (Andrew Borba), whose art criticism raises the painter's hackles even further.

On yet another front, Sims is thrust into a combative interview with a Germanic correspondent (Erin Anderson) who exacerbates old wounds by targeting his Jewish heritage as a basis for his paintings. These two scenes may be viewed as "asides," but they serve to stimulate the artist's inner strife in the play's other segments.

Sims and Bell interact on several levels — as strained ex-lovers, as a pair about to separate and, finally, as artist and model upon their first encounter. Bell successfully projects all these character elements in a richly defined performance.

Borba's initially taciturn archaeologist is transformed, with little elapsed time, into a vociferous art critic in a stingingly hilarious, if somewhat artificial, scene reminiscent of the conflict in Yasmina Reza's brilliant comedy "Art." His character may test believability, but his impact on the action is genuine.

As the interviewer, Anderson maintains an icy demeanor while injecting her own agenda into the hostility-charged exchange. Sims, conversely, projects a steely defensive position which leads to a crackling confrontation of Jew versus German, having little to do with artistic talent.

The four staging areas are beautifully fashioned by scenic designer Cameron Anderson, whose overall backdrop is artistic in itself. Geoff Korf's lighting and Cricket Myers' sound design also contribute to a strong atmospheric effect, as do Fred Kinney's mixed-period costumes.

"Sight Unseen" offered, in 1992, a preview of future SCR-produced works to come from Margulies — "Brooklyn Boy," the Pulitzer-winning "Dinner With Friends," "Shipwrecked" and the cream of the crop, "Collected Stories," which SCR also has produced twice. Its revival at the theater where it all began further underscores the playwright's impact.

TOM TITUS reviews theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Sight Unseen"

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: At 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until April 1

Tickets: Cost $20 to $68

To buy tickets: Call (714) 708-5555 or go to http://www.scr.org.

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