Donald Margulies’s Sight Unseen is a classic American play, and, like Death of a Salesman but more honestly, a crucial Jewish-American one: Margulies is to American drama what Philip Roth is to American fiction. The play is in part about the ambivalent mutual attraction of the Jewish man and the shiksa, but it is also about how success changes the individual. And also about why a love affair ends and cannot be rekindled years later. Also about sons and parents. Further, about Jewishness in America: how it is viewed from the inside, and how from the outside, when a very smart young German journalist, Grete, interviews the highly successful Brooklyn-born painter Jonathan Waxman at his London retrospective.
In England, too, but up-country, there is Patricia, who years ago was Jonathan’s passionate lover, until he abruptly dropped her after his mother’s funeral. She moved to England and passionlessly married Nick, a British archaeologist, whose assistant she had become. Jonathan eventually married another shiksa, became rich and famous, and is about to be a father. Significantly, he has just buried his own father, but had to rush to London to his retrospective without sitting shivah. Now he seeks out Patricia again, saying, “I’m nobody’s son anymore, Patty. They’re all gone now, all the disappointable people.”
An affluent celebrity, he could well quote Michael Frayn’s line, “I was happier when I wasn’t so happy.”
Pointed or poignant things happen between Jonathan and Patricia, Jonathan and Nick, Nick and Patricia, Grete and Jonathan. Margulies’s strengths are several: keen psychological insight; wonderful power of suggestion rather than spelling out, with the unsaid reverberating loudly; dialogue captured stunningly by both the ear and the heart. The play is not linear; it moves forward and backward in time, thereby achieving a fine sense of timelessness. It conveys how we can neither recapture our past nor, even if we break with it, wholly shake it off.
Like all great plays, Sight Unseen requires an astute and sensitive audience able to fill in the tremendous, looming unspoken. It also needs perfect casting, which it had at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1992, but doesn’t quite have at MTC in 2004. Only Byron Jennings fully scores as Nick, thus, alas, slightly overshadowing the others. Laura Linney, who was a sensational Grete in ’92, and went on to well-deserved stardom, is a bit too hysterical here and lacks the maternal component in Patricia. The good Ana Reeder is a trifle too obvious as Grete; most regrettably, Ben Shenkman, convincing as the young painter and timorous lover, remains—unlike Dennis Boutsikaris in ’92—too much of a cipher as the celebrated older artist, and very nearly scuttles the first act.
In Act Two, though, the excellence of the play surmounts all obstacles, and hits piercingly home. The production values work, and Daniel Sullivan has directed as well as this cast allows. Even at half-mast, the production catches most of the wistfully tickling, tantalizingly direction-changing breezes that blow through this play. Bask in them!