If you judged only by externals, you'd swear that Jonathan Waxman, protagonist of Sight Unseen, has it all. Waxman's a "bad-boy visionary" artist who had an eight-page feature in the New York Times Sunday magazine. He's in such demand he sells Waxman futures: he has a waiting list for work he's yet to do. People from Park Avenue to Tokyo are buying his paintings "sight unseen."
Nine years earlier, when he painted apartments — the walls, that is — Waxman never imagined what a whirlpool artistic success could be. His fame's lasted way beyond 15 minutes (even though he says he's become "passé," others swear he's still the "cat's pajamas"). What he misses now, as he's having a retrospective of his work in London, are his 15 minutes of inspiration — 17 years ago.
Waxman drives up M4 from Heathrow to a rustic farmhouse in Norfolk. He wants to see Patricia one more time. She modeled for his best student work and became his lover. On the day of his mother's funeral, 15 years ago, Waxman dumped Patricia. Now he must see her, but why? Lord his success over her? Ask forgiveness? Rediscover his lost inspiration? Or just make some kind of connection somewhere, anywhere?
A story rarely has just two sides. Good ones can have a dozen. Donald Margulies's Sight Unseen fits the latter group: it refuses to stand still. Each of Waxman's motives could, or could not. He's a montage of contradictions and one tough read, because what he says at any point, he believes. Then, an instant later, he believes something else.
Two examples: Waxman tells Patricia's husband Nick that art isn't about the artist's intention; it's in the eye of the beholder. Then Waxman hits the ceiling when Nick interprets a painting superficially. During an interview, Waxman boasts that his sudden fame amused him. Then the interviewer notes that, two years before his first success, Waxman hired a public relations firm.
A few decades ago, critics would have labeled Waxman as badly written: too inconsistent. Characters must be "unified," they'd say, not a jumble of conflicting impulses. Today, Waxman's one of the best examples we have of a deconstructed character. There's more to him than meets the eye, not less (deconstruction doesn't mean tearing down; it's more a filling in, often to excess). He's talented, arrogant, hurt, defensive, successful, hip, lost, and their opposites. Unity is what he craves. Though he drives a fancy car, he feels he's always on the wrong side of the road.
Sight Unseen moves back in time — like Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along (also about an artist who has lost his way) and Pinter's Betrayal. Given the degree of technical experimentation, you'd think Sight would be stiff and depersonalized. It isn't. It's alive. Margulies calls the play's structure "cubist": it resembles a slowly turning prism, revealing new, unexpected twists.
Since bulldozers leveled the Cassius Carter Centre Stage recently to make room for a new theater, the Old Globe is mounting Sight at the San Diego Museum of Art. The in-the-round temporary space looks a lot like the Carter, minus some entrances and technical capabilities (economist Morgan Reynolds said, "While history never repeats itself exactly, it rhymes").
Although the opening-night performances had some rough edges, especially pacing, which needed a brisker clip, the production overall served the script. Laurie Churba's costumes range from jet-set chic to Northern England functional. Nick Fouch's minimal set links a polished black floor (which works for Waxman's interview but not for his collegiate years) with primitive wooden planks for Nick and Patricia's "cold" farmhouse.
Last January, the San Diego Theater Critics Circle gave Esther Emery an award for excellence in directing — in part for how she probes the emotional core of a play. Her work with Sight should earn her more opportunities.
As Grete, the interviewer with an agenda, Katie Fabel's German accent is too thick on occasion. Ron Choularton, another San Diegan, could pick up his cues but portrays Nick's many sides with skill. Initially he comes off as a terse bumpkin. After a few shots of scotch, he's a passionate, albeit reactionary, art critic. And in the end he's marbled with pain. Kelly McAndrew is first-rate as roller-coasting Patricia. She's so torn, her feelings are never pure: they come in bunches, and usually in competition with each other.
Jonathan Waxman's an entire zodiac (one of Margulies's ironies: on stage his painting remains sight unseen, so we can't determine for ourselves how good he is — which keeps us off balance). At times, Anthony Crane tries to unify Waxman, connecting the signs, glossing over contradictions. Crane's much more effective, however, when he keeps Waxman in the moment, reacting to the world he made — or, more to the point, that made him.