Playing by Art
The Gallery Talk Is Just The Patina Coating A Feral Love Triangle
There's a wealth of talk about contemporary art in Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen. Jonathan Waxman (Paul Morella) is a New York painter who decries the "Hollywood packaging of the artist" to a German journalist. Grete, the interviewer, points out that just such packaging has made him rich and famous. Indeed, there's a waiting list of people who have signed up to buy his future canvases "sight unseen" for around a quarter million dollars each. Nick (Bob Rogerson), a British archaeologist, is apoplectic that anyone would pay that much to a painter who can't even get the hands right.
But if Sight Unseen were merely a clever satire on the art world's follies, it would be a much less interesting play than it is. Its true subject is the way such sophisticated banter tries to submerge uncomfortable emotions that burst to the surface anyway. Few feelings are more fundamental or more universal than the wounds left behind by breaking up with your first true love. When Nick viciously attacks Jonathan's painterly technique, and the artist responds by belittling Nick's philistine notions of art, the two men aren't really arguing aesthetics. They're fighting for Patricia (Deborah Hazlett), who was Jonathan's first love and is now Nick's wife.
Some productions of Sight Unseen never get past the witty art talk. But Daniel de Raey, director of the Everyman Theatre production, pushes his cast to make it clear that even the highly educated and the highly articulate are beset by animalistic jealousy and insecurity. When Rogerson's Nick attacks Jonathan's human hands, his droll British wit descends into a barking, bulldog baritone. And when Morella's Jonathan belittles Nick's philistine notions of art, his self-assured Brooklyn purr rises into a panicky spaniel's tenor.
The face-off takes place in Nick and Patricia's drafty farmhouse in Norfolk, England. Jonathan has taken a day off from installing his first major London show to visit the girl he knew as Patty for the first time in 18 years. As soon as he arrives in his fancy sports car, plush overcoat, and expensive haircut, the contrast with Patricia's ratty old sweater and barely combed hair makes clear how their paths have diverged. Now 40, Jonathan pretends that it's merely a casual social visit, a chance to catch up with an old friend, but Morella gives us nervous signals that something else is at stake.
As Patricia, Hazlett tries to be just as casual, but there's a wariness in her replies and defensive posture. She snaps at him occasionally but quickly takes a deep breath and returns to casualness. Nick doesn't even try to be polite, much less casual. He keeps a sullen quiet until he can't stand it any longer and goes after this intruder in his home. He knows that there's still sexual chemistry between his wife and her ex: Doesn't she keep Jonathan's nude portrait of her over the mantle? Hasn't she gazed at it on many an evening?
Morella was terrible in this same role during the 1994 production of Sight Unseen at the Olney Theatre; then he got all of Jonathan's smugness and none of his need. Thirteen years later, Morella delivers a far more nuanced performance. His current Jonathan is flirtatious with Patricia, but less in the suave manner that he handles Grete (Karen Novack) and more in an embarrassed, desperate attempt to reclaim some of the old passion that has gone out of his painting and personal life.
Patricia, who misses that old passion, too, is tempted to give in to him; you can sense Hazlett weakening her resistance at key moments--softening her posture and tone of voice. But then Jonathan will do something clumsy or crass, and you can almost hear Hazlett slamming shut all the doors to her emotions. On the other hand, Patricia is no saintly victim; we soon learn how clinging she had been with Jonathan and how manipulative she can be with Nick.
From the opening scene of Jonathan's arrival at the farmhouse, the narrative zigzags both forward and backward. It goes forward to later that night and the next morning at the farmhouse and to opening night of Jonathan's London show, where Grete prods at the painter's contradictions as ruthlessly as Nick had. But the story line also goes backward to Nick and Patricia's preparation for Jonathan's 1992 arrival, to Jonathan and Patricia's 1974 breakup, and to their first meeting in 1972.
As in David Hare's Plenty and Harold Pinter's Betrayal, this inverted plot structure begins with disillusioned ex-lovers in the present and ends with optimistic young lovers in the past. The show thus ends with something like a happy ending--certainly the two leads are happier in the last scene than in any other--but it's an ending filled with irony, for we already know the fate of their high hopes. But there is something restorative about such an ending, especially after we've seen so much bad behavior onstage. Youthful idealism is always inspiring, no matter how many times it is betrayed by the Jonathans, Patricias, and Nicks of the world, for it offers the possibility that it may work out the next time--if not fully, at least in part.
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