Popular Artist Visits His Ex-Lover and Muse After Fifteen Years, In “Sight Unseen,” 1991 Obie-Winning Drama at Theatre Intime
It’s about lost love, the role of the artist, and anti-Semitism. It’s about an identity crisis that strikes as middle-age approaches and brings with it the inevitable compromises of life.
Jonathan Waxman is a rising mega-star in the international art scene of twenty years ago. His controversial modern paintings are sold “sight unseen,” even before they are completed, to wealthy patrons in New York City and throughout the world. In Sight Unseen, Donald Margulies’ 1991 Off-Broadway hit, Jonathan, in London for the first overseas exhibition of his work, journeys out to the country to visit his former lover Patricia and her husband Nick.
Throughout the ensuing eight scenes of Sight Unseen, currently playing in an uneven, though at times luminous and engaging, production at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, Jonathan (Jordan Adelson) and Patricia (Rachel Saunders) seek resolution to a welter of interwoven issues, romantic, aesthetic, and personal. These include their abruptly-terminated relationship of fifteen years earlier, the artist’s role as a public figure in a commercial world, and disputes over anti-Semitism.
Patricia, now an expatriate and her British husband Nick (Peter Giovine) live a modest life in their cold farmhouse, pursuing their archeological explorations of Roman ruins. Jonathan comes upon his painting of Patricia, a gift to her, from 15 years earlier, now hanging prominently in Patricia and Nick’s house. Jonathan recognizes in that painting the inspiration and integrity that, amidst all his success and fame, he has lost. Patricia is still bitter over Jonathan’s rejection of her. Nick, socially awkward and hostile both to Jonathan and the art he creates, clashes with Jonathan over his relationship with Patricia and over the very nature of his artistic work.
The scenes jump forward and backwards in time, from the farmhouse in the present to an interview between Jonathan and a German journalist four days later in London, then back, 15 years to the break-up of Jonathan and Patricia’s relationship, and finally to the college painting studio where the relationship began. The fragmented chronology provides fascinating perspective on the relationship between Jonathan and Patricia, life compromises of both protagonists, and on Jonathan’s controversial evolution as an artist.
Under the direction of Princeton University junior Eric Traub, this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen effectively brings out much of Mr. Margulies’ sharp, provocative dialogue, his intriguingly complex characterizations and his troubling themes.
The four–member ensemble is generally well rehearsed, but an emergency session on projection and diction would be helpful. Ms. Saunders, when playing the settled, married, late-thirties Patricia, is so subdued that she is difficult to hear. Also problematic is Ms. Erin O’Brien’s German-accented, rapidly articulated dialogue with Jonathan, as she spars over his Jewishness, his commercialism, and his authenticity as an artist in the second scenes of both acts.
Ms. Saunders is at her best in the two powerful flashback scenes with Jonathan — their meeting in the painting studio at a New York college and their break-up soon after graduation, as Jonathan is mourning his mother’s death. Thoroughly convincing and in character in these scenes, Ms. Saunders offers a striking, warmly human stage presence and a worthy artist’s muse. It is not surprising that these undergraduate performers would have a less firm a grasp on the more ambiguous and disillusioned late thirties versions of these characters.
Mr. Adelson’s Jonathan is focused, articulate, and expressive in showing his range of emotions, from desire and confidence to frustration, regret and sadness, as he struggles in his quest to understand and reconnect with his past.
Mr. Giovine, as the ill at ease British archeologist, successfully portrays an eccentric, angry presence — resentful of Jonathan’s past relationship with Patricia and scornful of Jonathan’s artistic accomplishments. He becomes strongly outspoken and manifestly hostile when he goes on the attack in the second of two acts.
Ms. O’Brien presents the aggressive journalist, who puts Jonathan on the defensive, artistically and personally. Her complex interrogations, complete with heavy German accent, do need to be delivered more slowly and clearly.
Michaela Karis’s set design, with lighting by Laura Hildebrand, is efficient and successful in portraying the four different locales represented in the eight scenes — farmhouse, London art gallery, Jonathan’s family home in Brooklyn, and the college art studio. Mr. Traub has staged the action clearly and intelligently, with necessary scenery sliding on and off swiftly. A screen at far stage right with brief film footage and labels for dates and times helps to create the world of the play and clarify the shifts as the action moves back and forth between city and country, 1990s, and 1970s.
Despite frequent moments of humor, Sight Unseen is ultimately a poignantly sad story of loss. “You’re an artist! An artist has to experience the world!” Patricia exhorts Jonathan during their first romantic encounter, finally presented in the closing moments of the play. “How can you experience the world if you say ‘no’ to things you shouldn’t have to say ‘no’ to?!” Seventeen years later they may both have experienced the world. They may both be wiser. But the loss has been greater than the gain. Mr. Margulies and this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen invite their audiences to engage with these interesting characters in this exploration of their tangled lives and their uneasy world.