National Jewish Theater

Donald Margulies’s Sight Unseen requires audience participation, and viewers will get as much out of it as they’re willing to put in. Margulies, whose treatment of middle-class Jewish values in The Loman Family Picnic was less than subtle, has created a work of astonishing depth and intelligence. Getting caught up in it is sort of like stepping into intellectual quicksand; it pulls you in deeper and deeper. Given National Jewish Theater’s superb production, this should be one of the most challenging and entertaining plays of the season.

Ostensibly the story of the attempt by the ultrasuccessful painter Jonathan Waxman to rediscover the inspiration his work has lost, Sight Unseen is also an intriguing depiction of the parallels between an artist’s acceptance into society and Jewish assimilation. When the play opens, Waxman is riding the crest of international acclaim. The subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story and a major retrospective in London, he nevertheless feels somewhat unfulfilled, which leads him to pay a visit to the model for his first major work, his former lover Patricia; she and her husband Nick work as archaeologists in Norfolk, England.

Margulies uses a quirky, disconnected structure for his play, skipping around between Nick and Patricia’s farmhouse, where Waxman tries to rekindle the old romance; a London art gallery, where Waxman is interviewed by a pesky German journalist; his studio in 1975, where Patricia posed for him and he became infatuated with her; and his bedroom two years later, following his mother’s funeral, where he rejected Patricia.

Key to the understanding of this play are two of Waxman’s works, the initial study of Patricia, which hangs above her fireplace, and a strangely evocative work called Walpurgis Nacht, the centerpiece of the gallery exhibit. The differing interpretations of each work frame the major conflicts of the play. For Waxman, the study of Patricia harks back to a time of innocence and youthful inspiration, when he was an overprotected Jewish boy from Brooklyn, when sex was a mystery, and when blond, blue-eyed women like Patricia were exotic and forbidden. For Patricia, the work represents the only period in her life when she experienced the kinetic feelings of love, before she ran away to England and married Nick, whom she didn’t love. For the clumsy, beleaguered Nick, the work has no significance beyond being associated with the artist who’s causing him pain; he’d just as soon sell it.

Even more provocative are the interpretations of Walpurgis Nacht, which displays a black man and a white woman having sex in a desecrated Jewish cemetery. Waxman’s German interviewer, Grete, and Patricia view it as a rape scene, Nick views it as pornographic, and Waxman, while refusing to define it, finds it terrifying yet exhilarating. This painting serves as a metaphor for the process of assimilation and as a mirror for each character’s views on the subject. Waxman’s assimilation through his relationship with Patricia left her feeling used and violated; for him, the process was more ambiguous, one that excited him at first, but ultimately destroyed his belief system as represented by the destroyed Jewish monuments in the cemetery.

The exchanges between Waxman and Grete link Waxman’s religious assimilation with his artistic one, drawing a parallel between Waxman’s relationships with non-Jewish women and his progress from artistic outsider to unwillingly accepted insider. Despite Waxman’s tendency to label every relationship Grete sees between his artistry and his Jewishness as German anti-Semitism, his sensitive interpretations of these questions are revealing. By insisting on being referred to as an American artist instead of a Jewish one, Waxman is, in essence, denying the importance of his heritage in his work, and it is this denial that’s at the heart of his dilemma. What drove his art were feelings of exclusion, as an artist and a Jew. Now that his religion is gone and his art accepted, he’s lost. He looks to the past, but it’s futile–that which inspired him cannot be recaptured.

Margulies’s characters defy easy labels. Like Waxman’s artworks, they’re open to any number of interpretations. One can view Waxman as Nick does, as a charlatan duping the fickle public and spouting meaningless platitudes about art (“The job of the artist is not to spell everything out”), or as a tortured visionary whose presence reveals more about the characters he comes in contact with than they care to admit. Refreshingly, Grete is not your stereotypical anti-Semitic Teuton. Margulies gives her a number of offensive prejudices–she dismisses the Holocaust as just another atrocity–but he also endows her with a startling perceptiveness about her subject.

By making his characters artists and archaeologists, Margulies seems to have both artistic and archaeological aims. His play is a deeply felt, emotional work with an intensely gripping depiction of the varied meanings a work of art can possess. But it is also an almost scientific excavation of the disappearing fragments of individual societies and the sense of loss that accompanies assimilation.

Despite a tendency to bridge scene breaks with inappropriate sappy new-age music (also a problem in NJT’s exquisite production of The Price), National Jewish Theater’s production of Sight Unseen under Susan Padveen’s direction captures every facet of Margulies’s excellent script. Jeff Ginsberg, recalling a breathless Ron Silver, is a perfect Waxman, brilliant and overbearing, inspired and enervated. Ellyn Duncan’s Patricia is wonderfully complex, moving back and forth between youthful innocence and middle-aged resignation with ease, and Kimberly Kalember’s Grete is appropriately icy and intelligent. But stealing the show is Craig Spidle’s sad-eyed, cynical Nick, whose every word rings with a biting and desperate sense of honesty. This guy ought to get some kind of award. Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s clever and imaginative set design, which raises and lowers venetian blinds on each expertly executed location, provides as detailed and accurate a look into the homes of the characters as Margulies’s script does.