THE BASICS: SIGHT UNSEEN, a 1991 play by Donald Margulies (and 1992 Pulitzer finalist) presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre as part of their “A Sentimental Journey” season, directed by Saul Elkin, starring Constance Caldwell, Josie DiVincenzo, David Lundy and Peter Palmisano opened on April 19 and runs through Mother’s Day, May 13, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8, and Sundays at 2 at the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville (650-7626). www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com Runtime: 2 hours with one ten-minute intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Jonathan, an artist so well regarded in the world of galleries and super-rich patrons that his paintings are bought “sight unseen,” even before they’re created, has always struggled to escape the shadow of the shtetl. Once, in an art class 25 years ago he felt completely free, and as he drives to the country home of his now married first girlfriend (and model back then), what is he looking for?
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: In this third Margulies play in Western New York in as many seasons (DINNER WITH FRIENDS and THE COUNTRY HOUSE at Road Less Traveled), we once again have a play about adults behaving badly.
With only four characters to cast, director Saul Elkin had the luxury of cherry picking from some of the best actors in Buffalo.
With only four characters to cast, director Saul Elkin had the luxury of cherry picking from some of the best actors in Buffalo. Seasoned actors who can play “intense” with, well, intensity, not theatrics or histrionics. Actors who have been on big stages, who have been on little corner-of-a-room stages, actors who can make the small-ish Jewish Repertory stage feel “just right.”
Peter Palmisano (as the artist “Jonathan”) can play a tortured-soul-trying-to-bullshit-himself-and-others so well, and here he is right in his element with a very nuanced performance. Similarly, David Lundy (“Nick”) is expert at surprised outrage (what eyes he has!) while Josie DiVincenzo (“Patricia”) once again portrays so believably a complete, fully faceted woman, realistic and yet hopeful, pissed-off and yet flirty. And you could just tell that Constance Caldwell as “Grete,” the German art magazine writer, was having a ball with her role. With these four, you’d think that one might “upstage” the others at any given moment, but, thanks to direction by Saul Elkin, that doesn’t happen. As I said, it’s intense, but never over the top.
Is this play autobiographical? Well, yes. Originally trained as an artist himself, Margulies grew up Jewish in Brooklyn where two of the pivotal scenes in SIGHT UNSEEN are set. And there are several times in which the character Jonathan remembers the moment when, as a young art student, he felt completely excited and alive while painting.
In an interview with Zack Newick in the Paris Review, Margulies recalled of his youth: “We were middle-class Jews who didn’t go to synagogue, but we did go to Broadway… I remember feeling privileged to be in a theater where I was privy to very adult humor that I understood and enjoyed. I was excited, I remember that vividly.”
In another scene, set in Jonathan’s childhood bedroom in Brooklyn, we see that inchoate longing to be free of his Jewish heritage so that he can pursue his affair with his shiksa girlfriend. But later in the play, feeling attacked by a German journalist, he defends his preoccupation with his heritage. Both as a student, and later as an adult, his defense of his actions is so brutal and ineloquent, it’s obvious that he’s still conflicted.
At intermission and following the play, comments overheard in the lobby would indicate that not everyone ‘got it.’
At intermission and following the play, comments overheard in the lobby would indicate that not everyone “got it.” One reason could be that the play is told in eight non-linear scenes, and even though each scene is titled with date and location, sometimes some folks have trouble with that. And that’s a shame, because Margulies does structure his scenes with a purpose in mind.
On teaching playwrighting, Margulies told the Paris Review: “I’m very much a structuralist—not that I insist upon creating ‘the well-made play,’ but I do pose fundamental questions like, Where is the conflict? What is your play about? … I think it is essential, particularly in drama, to know what is at stake that must be resolved in ninety minutes to two hours. I often pose [to my students] the Passover question: Why is this night different from all other nights? In other words: Why is the action taking place now and not yesterday or tomorrow?”
Well, it seems as if some in the audience were not sure why sometimes the scene was now, or yesterday, or tomorrow, or 25 years ago or 27 years ago as the scenes in SIGHT UNSEEN were.
In the play, the artist Jonathan declares that a painting is about whatever the viewer thinks it’s about, and involves the viewer’s participation, and so your view of this play will vary, but one thing I think it’s about is the eternal search for the fountain of youth, whether that fountain is in a theater or an art studio or wherever it was for you, on a high school football team, or riding a motorcycle down a country road. It’s that first kiss, torpedoes be damned, Karl Wallenda “to be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting” moment.
Of course, any good production needs good bones and the set by David Dwyer, while spare, has just what it needs and no more, not unlike a piece of modern art. Is there any stage where Sound Designer Tom Makar has failed to delight in his choice of music, before and after the plays, and during critical scene changes? If so, I haven’t heard of it. And kudos to Property Master Mike Benoit for very realistic props.
UP NEXT: This is the last show this season, but the JRT has announced that next year (their “Sweet Sixteen Season”) they’ll have THE STRUDEL LADY by Shirl Solomon (October 4 – 28, 2018) a four-person musical comedy about friendship, love, and one woman’s voyage of self- discovery; TALLEY’S FOLLY by Lanford Wilson (February 7 – March 3, 2019) about Jewish Matt and his love for Protestant Sally; and LOOKING THROUGH GLASS by Ken Kaissar (Mary 9 – June 2, 2019) about two thwarted lovers and a Jewish demon (a dybbuk).
Photos: Jewish Repertory Theatre
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!