In the theater, there is something equivalent to a pitcher throwing a perfect game. If a playwright has enough figurative curve balls, sliders, change-ups, and sinkers, he’s got the requirements; he needs only to use them craftily and consistently in order to come up with something special. In this regard, Donald Margulies can be seen as having the necessary wherewithal. With Sight Unseen first produced in 1992 and now on Broadway for the first time in director Dan Sullivan’s sensitive production for the Manhattan Theatre Club, he throws a perfect game.
The play is a sequence of nuances; throughout, Margulies comes up with insights into the complex, almost imperceptible verbal and psychological exchanges among people. The author, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends, skillfully zeroes in on the choices that men and women make in self-aware moments and, just as crucially, in unself-aware moments. These are the choices, he whispers between his lines, that turn life into an inconclusive procedure.
Jonathan Waxman (Ben Shenkman), whose name is surely meant to suggest a wax man, has come to a Norfolk, England farmhouse to visit Patricia (Laura Linney), the girlfriend he threw out of his life 15 years earlier. Now an international art market star preparing a retrospective installation in London, Jonathan may have made his sentimental journey for an unsentimental reason: When he and Patricia first met, he’d done a portrait of her that would fill a gap in his about-to-open show. Perhaps he’s thinking that she still has it, which she does. Although she’s intrigued by his sudden appearance, she’s disinclined to forgive him for his past treatment; she sarcastically refers to herself with the memorable phrase “sacrificial shiksa.” Also loathe to cut Jonathan any slack is Patricia’s husband, Nick, who mocks the artist’s paintings as “pornography” and lets him know that he’s unwelcome in the (symbolic?) stone house that Douglas W. Schmidt has designed.
Schmidt has also provided three other roomy sets (just how commodious is the backstage area of the Biltmore?) because, in telling this story, Margulies leaps back and forth in time so that the very beginning and the very end of the Jonathan-Patricia liaison become sights seen. (The final vignette depicts the first few minutes during which Jonathan and Patricia decide to start their affair — not unlike Harold Pinter’s ploy in Betrayal, which was written some years earlier.) The two scenes that take place just after Jonathan’s Norfolk jaunt cover an interview that Jonathan undergoes — that’s the right word, “undergoes” — with German art reporter Grete (Ana Reeder), a woman with an ambiguous agenda who’s ready to challenge Jonathan on the meaning of his work. Jonathan is ready to challenge her right back, suspecting that she harbors anti-Semitic attitudes.
Because Nick is spotted brooding in solitude at the play’s kick-off and because Jonathan is later revealed crying alone in his bedroom just after his mother’s burial, Sight Unseen — Margulies’s title has multiple applications — seems to be about men in their unguarded moments. Surely, the playwright wants to paint a portrait of Jonathan that’s as rich as the artist’s portrait of Patricia. (That painting, incidentally, is another sight that remains unseen.) Margulies sees Jonathan as a man wrapped up in himself — Patricia accuses him twice of discarding her after he’s gotten what he wants from her — but he isn’t without redeeming qualities. He’s intelligent and he understands ambiguities, as is evidenced during his volatile chat with Grete and the discussion of his painting “Walpurgisnacht,” in which a black man and white woman are seen making love in a cemetery — or is the woman being raped? Jonathan isn’t deeply likeable but it’s hard to condemn him outright.
While this character occupies much of the play’s center, Patricia takes up equal space there. She’s asked to make the most knotty decisions in the play, one of which is what to do about the painting, hanging on her wall, that carries a monetary value she has never taken into account but Nick suddenly does. And it’s Patricia who’s living in a stone house and toiling as an archeologist — i.e., digging up the past — because she has never quite put Jonathan behind her. Apparently, she married the laconic Nick because she thought he was the best she could do.
Having put these conflicting forces into play, Margulies unfolds scene after scene in which the characters’ subtle interactions throw their shared difficulties into relief. The aspects of the play that take one’s breath away because they’re so perceptive about the odd manifestations of human nature are too numerous to list in toto, but they include: Patricia’s attempts to figure out why Jonathan has reconnected with her; Jonathan’s attempt to sneak off with the portrait; Nick’s taunting of Jonathan; Jonathan’s inability to let Patricia in on his mourning; Grete’s real intentions in goading Jonathan; a no-win decision that Patricia has to make about keeping or surrendering the painting; and Jonathan’s slow acquiescence to Patricia’s romantic blandishments when he’s a promising student and she’s a neophyte life class model.
Sight Unseen has more layers than a Bermuda onion — and, when cut into, it’s just as likely to bring an audience to tears. The play’s potential is fully realized by director Daniel Sullivan, who recently came in for unfair criticism from an influential quarter for supposedly not knowing how to guide actors. On the contrary, he knows very well what the results of careful nurturing can be, and he proves that bountifully here. Ben Shenkman, whom Sullivan worked with on David Auburn’s Proof and who replaced the otherwise engaged Liev Schreiber as Jonathan before rehearsals began, has the kind of lanky frame that can suggest gawkiness at one moment and elegance the next. He also has a line on the self-involvement that often passes for casual assurance in successful people. In the course of the play’s two acts, Shenkman doesn’t miss an opportunity to fill in the many blanks in Jonathan’s make-up.
Laura Linney, who played Grete smashingly and with something sinister around the edges in the original production of this play a dozen years ago, does some of the best work of her career in the role of Patricia. With her hair unkempt in the Norfolk scenes and shiny in the ’70s scenes, she’s a cat on a cold stone wall — nervous, quick to anger, shrewd, loving, alluring. Moving about in Jess Goldstein’s deliberately unprepossessing shmattes, she gets to the heart of this woman.
Byron Jennings’s Nick is a nasty piece of work. Nick knows that he isn’t loved by his wife and yet he can’t stop loving her; Jennings, looking shaggy and baggy, conveys the mounting bitterness that a man in such circumstances might display. Ana Reeder is a strong Grete, buxom in the black suit that Goldstein has cannily selected for her. Reeder’s final, fleeting expression when Grete has completely exasperated Jonathan is priceless. It isn’t called for in Margulies’s stage directions; it’s all her own.
Sight Unseen, lit by Pat Collins and featuring John Gromada’s sound design and jaunty, occasional music, is the happy ending of a notoriously bad MTC season. The production goes a long way towards righting what’s preceded it, and it’s a sight that shouldn’t go unseen.