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Theater review: 'Sight Unseen' at South Coast Repertory

March 19, 2012 |  4:54 pm

Sight unseen 1


 Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” returns to South Coast Repertory, where the play had its world premiere in 1991. And it’s safe to say that every new production of this critically acclaimed work is a unique experience.

This revival, directed by founding SCR artistic director David Emmes, is absorbing through and through, but it demonstrates the challenge of balancing the competing perspectives of the play. One side dominates here, making “Sight Unseen” seem ultimately more parochial than it should.

Depending on who’s playing Jonathan, a painter whose career has brought him fame, fortune and a New York Times Magazine cover, and Patricia, his ex-girlfriend living in England with her fellow archaeologist husband, the play’s balance of meaning will shift. This is of course true for all good dramas, but the situation in “Sight Unseen” is somewhat more pronounced as the play is a study of a character who bears quite a few similarities to his author.

Sight unseen 2b

Like Jonathan, Margulies has Brooklyn Jewish roots and has achieved a certain level of stature as an artist. (The playwright is probably best known today as the author of “Dinner With Friends,” which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama.) And like Jonathan he has been caught up in questions about assimilation and tradition, cultural identity and individual autonomy, artistic purity and compromise.

If the vision that emerges from Emmes’ production ultimately seems more flattering to Jonathan/Margulies than critical, it’s probably because Gregory Sims is so convincing as the demure hotshot Jonathan while Nancy Bell has a tougher time finding the same degree of texture in her portrayal of Patricia. Sims has the New York voice and manner down pat, and he follows Jonathan’s train of thought as though the justifications and rationalizations the character is so good at coming up with were his own.

Bell focuses almost exclusively on the way Patricia has never recovered from Jonathan’s rejection of her. Her austere home life in England, where she fled after their breakup to pursue graduate studies in archaeology, and her sexless marriage to socially ill-at-ease Nick (Andrew Borba), whom she married to stay in the country, lend credence to this understanding of the character. But it’s a cramped view of a complicated woman. We hear about Patricia’s professional command and rugged independence, but all we see is the bitterness of a woman whose heart was broken by her college sweetheart.

Without an effective counterweight to Jonathan, the play ends up seeming rather narcissistic on the part of Margulies. It also makes it hard to credit that a portrait Jonathan painted of Patricia that he discovers hanging in her English farmhouse would contain within it some crucial spark that has been missing in his subsequent work. Their connection just doesn’t seem all that resonant. 

For young Jonathan to have gotten involved with a woman who wasn’t Jewish was an act of transgression. True, he later married a non-Jew, but back then he was defying not just his mother’s wishes but also his sense of his own heritage. The pull of this formative relationship has to be surmised in this staging.

Fortunately, this play, which journeys back and forth between the 1990s and 1970s on an efficient, economical set by Cameron Anderson, also includes a couple of scenes in which Jonathan is interviewed by a German art critic (Erin Anderson), whose interpretation of his work offends him on two counts: He resents being categorized as a “Jewish artist” (especially by a German) and he’s even more bothered by the contradiction she detects in his desire to identify as an artistic “outsider” even though he’s clearly become a part of the commercial mainstream.

The dialectic in these scenes is fast and furious, provoking as much admiration for Jonathan’s intelligence as it does doubt about his self-knowledge. The ironies exposed by this encounter echo throughout the play, but the production is too soft toward Jonathan and inadvertently too hard on Patricia, whose distinguishing quality even in the flashback exchanges is her life-altering passion for this man.

“Sight Unseen” isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s an intelligent piece of writing concealing multiple layers. Theatergoers who find this SCR revival engrossing should look for an opportunity to catch the play again in a subsequent revival. Facets hidden in this one will no doubt come into view.


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-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty


"Sight Unseen," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Cosa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends April 1. $20-$68. (714) 708-5555 or  Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Photos: Upper: Nancy Bell and Gregory Sims. Lower: Gregory Sims and Andrew Borba. Credit: Glenn Koenig/ Los Angeles Times