The past dogs the present in Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen," the playwright's insightful portrait of an artist as an unsatisfied man.
We're in mid-life crisis territory here, not exactly virgin terrain. Yet Margulies, author of "Dinner With Friends" and "Collected Stories," manages to artfully twist and turn his tale of a successful painter coming to terms with what he has lost because of prosperous celebrity.
"Sight Unseen," first seen on a tiny stage at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1992, has now graduated to MTC's new Broadway home, the Biltmore.
And the journey to the bigger theater, where the revival opened Tuesday, has not hurt the play, directed with a steady, sure hand by Daniel Sullivan.
At the center of Margulies' drama stands Jonathan Waxman, played by Ben Shenkman. The artist would seem to have it all: an adoring wife who soon will present him with a child; laudatory profiles in trendy magazines; eager patrons willing to advance commissions for works that haven't even been painted - purchased, as the play's title trumpets, sight unseen.
Yet along the way, Jonathan has lost something (his father has just died) and people have been left behind, including Patricia, a one-time girlfriend and his first muse.
As the play opens, Jonathan is in rural England, visiting Patricia (Laura Linney) and her British husband (Byron Jennings), an archaeologist. The artist wants to make amends, but his offer isn't readily received.
That rejection makes for some potent dramatic fireworks, particularly since Linney is lighting the fuse. Her Patricia is a model of cool, collected bitterness. The actress gives a steely, yet emotionally believable performance as the spurned woman who refuses to forgive.
"You get used to anything," says the angry Patricia, who obviously hasn't, as recriminations fly fast and furiously. Her taciturn helpmate, played by Jennings with just the right amount of vindictiveness, contributes mightily to the explosions.
Yet Margulies has even more chilly moments planned. They occur during a television interview between Jonathan and an aggressive German television reporter (Ana Reeder) who peppers her subject with provocative questions about his career.
The woman needles the artist about the despair and misogyny found in his paintings, contrasting their bleakness and political statements with the comfortable monetary rewards their creator has enjoyed. The interview exacerbates his emptiness, causing him to lash out at someone who has hit a nerve about his emotional dead end.
Reeder (in a role played in the original production by Linney) is effective as the Teutonic inquisitor; the lanky Shenkman less so, but then he has trouble throughout the play conveying the inner turmoil churning within his character.
The actor is much better in the play's final scene – which chronologically is its first. Here we meet the budding painter and his willing young model. The sweetness of a first romance is in the air. Shenkman's joyous agitation is appealing and so is his subject's eagerness to please, delivered by a luminous Linney.
It's also the play's saddest, most heartfelt moment, giving audiences a chance to see what was lost during one man's travels to adulthood.
During the first act of the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Donald Margulies' 1992 "Sight Unseen," a play I remembered fondly, I found myself wondering why it needed a second look.
During the second act, the play's wit answered the question.
But for a play about the life of an artist to be compelling - assuming he does not cut off his ear - the actor in the pivotal role of Jonathan Waxman has to be charismatic.
Ben Shenkman, though not without charm, is too low-key to engage our sympathies above and beyond what the script tells us about him.
As a result, the play seems lopsided.
The characters who revolve around Waxman are more engaging than he is. The personal scenes seem cryptic.
The play comes to life when it raises larger issues of contemporary art or the artist's relationship with his Jewish background.
Laura Linney plays his ex-girlfriend, who had been his muse many years before. As always, Linney has great effervescence onstage, so much so that it is hard to understand her virtually forcing herself on the rather indifferent artist.
Byron Jennings is deliciously funny as her unassuming husband, whose acid comments on Waxman's art are prompted by a response to the artist that is far from intellectual.
As the German critic, Ana Reeder gives a solid performance - though not as funny as Linney, who played that role in the original.
Another oddity of the production is that Douglas Schmidt's main set is visible when the audience enters, although the Biltmore (unlike the small stage at MTC) has a curtain, which is used for the rest of the play.
Ultimately, "Sight Unseen" works, because it is full of ideas and verbal elegance. But the lack of chemistry between the characters leads to an evening that takes too long to ignite.
With the revival of "Sight Unseen," Donald Margulies' abrasive, spiked cocktail of a play, the Manhattan Theater Club ends its very first and shaky Broadway season at the Biltmore Theater with a success, perhaps even a hit.
It's not an unqualified success, to be sure - more of a messy mix of the alluring dangers of fame, the pitfalls of interfaith relationships and the phoniness of the contemporary art world.
But it is beautifully acted - Byron Jennings, Laura Linney, Ana Reeder and Ben Shenkman make an impressive foursome - and staged by Daniel Sullivan with the naturalness of breath itself, abetted by great settings by Douglas W. Schmidt, Jess Goldstein's period-pointed costumes and Pat Collins' astute lighting.
The play itself is somewhat thin. It revolves around Jonathan Waxman (Shenkman), a young painter who hit the big time a few years ago.
He may be a great artist, but somehow we doubt it: We hear he hired a public relations firm two years before his first success.
On the eve of a big London show of his work, Waxman arrives at a farmhouse in Norfolk to visit Patricia (Linney), his first model - and first love - who's now uneasily married to a poor, grumpy but astute archaeologist (Jennings).
The play is constructed in a jump-happy fashion -Scene One comes first, but the final Scene Eight is set 17 years earlier, and in between the time-frame hops around a bit.
Margulies uses this crazy patchwork construction skillfully enough - particularly with the insertion of two scenes set in the London art gallery where Waxman is interviewed by a crisply smug Teutonic interviewer, Grete (Reeder), who forces him to confront his Jewish roots.
Waxman is a cheat, a coward, a fraud and possibly a thief - yet Shenkman plays him marvelously in a manner suffused by a surface charm, but with a secretive inner guilt.
Linney is even more appealing as the bruised but hardened Patricia, a woman who lost her love but retained her sense of self.
Reeder does her tough interrogator bit as one of those interviewers always skirting the brink of irreversible insult, and the always dependable Jennings gives another gem-like performance as the embittered but holier-than-thou scientist.
All in all, it's the play of a promising young man - Margulies later won a well-deserved Pulitzer for "Dinner With Friends" - most beautifully produced. But when all is said and acted, it has more themes than meaning.
Luckily, unlike his painter hero here, Margulies' first work was not his best.
A sorcerer named Laura Linney is performing an act of magic that happens only in live theater. She has rewritten a play without changing a word. Ms. Linney, as you probably know, is not a writer but an actress. Yet her emotional incandescence in the revival of ''Sight Unseen,'' which opened last night at the Biltmore Theater, has the effect of entirely shifting the focus of Donald Margulies's fine drama from 1992 about art, time and moral compromise.
Theatergoers who saw ''Sight Unseen'' a dozen years ago probably left the show thinking that it was about a charismatically egocentric painter who had sold his soul to that old devil success. Audiences for this latest production from the Manhattan Theater Club are likely to conclude that it is about a charismatically uncertain woman, played by Ms. Linney, who erases her very sense of self through her love for an egocentric painter.
It should be noted that it was surely not the intention of Ms. Linney, an actress of uncommon modesty, to relocate the center of ''Sight Unseen.'' But because she gives the one unconditionally authentic performance in this production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, her character becomes the prism through which everything is refracted.
Admittedly, this creates a lopsidedness that is not to the play's advantage. Still, anyone who has followed Ms. Linney's increasingly impressive career onstage (''The Crucible'') and in film (''You Can Count on Me,'' ''Mystic River'') should make a point of seeing her here. Actually, make that anyone who savors acting that is paradoxically clear to the point of transparency and as subtle as shadows at twilight.
Ms. Linney was also in the original New York staging of ''Sight Unseen,'' in a different, smaller part: that of Grete, a fierce German critic who turns an interview with the American painter Jonathan Waxman (first played by Dennis Boutsikaris) into a shrewd attack on his identity as artist, American and Jew. The interview scenes are what most people who saw the show then remember most vividly.
In this new production, Jonathan is played by a nebbishy Ben Shenkman and Grete by Ana Reeder, who brings her own clawed kittenishness to the role. It's still a pretty compelling encounter. But it doesn't make half the impression as do the scenes of Jonathan's reunion after 15 years with Patricia (Ms. Linney), his lover from their college years.
Part of this has to do with changing times. In 1992 the economic boom of the 1980's in American art was still a fresh and sore subject, as was the ascendancy of the hotshot celebrity artist. Grete's interview with Jonathan, set in a London gallery, had a sting of topical satire that has lost its immediacy.
But Mr. Margulies, the author of ''The Loman Family Picnic'' and ''Dinner With Friends,'' has never been merely a satirist. His plays are usually about how time and memory transform feelings, relationships and the perception of the past. In scrambling chronology to consider the life and losses of Jonathan Waxman, ''Sight Unseen'' becomes a commentary on the sacrifices entailed in getting older and getting ahead.
The essential problem with this production, which features handsome sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, is its Jonathan. In fairness to Mr. Shenkman, who appeared memorably on Broadway in ''Proof'' and in the television version of ''Angels in America,'' he has two ghosts to contend with: that of the performance given by Mr. Boutsikaris and of the performance that wasn't given by the brilliant Liev Schreiber, who was originally cast for the revival and is an expert in defining moral shadiness. Mr. Shenkman exudes an effortless naturalism but is so low key that he seems at moments to dematerialize. This is in some ways appropriate to a character who has become disorientingly detached from who he was. But what Mr. Boutsikaris provided that Mr. Shenkman does not was the sensual fierceness and cruelty of ravening ambition.
In Mr. Shenkman's scenes with Ms. Linney -- set in the rustic farmhouse Patricia shares with her husband, Nick (Byron Jennings), an archaeologist -- her character's frustration and resentment are intensified by your impression that she is trying to milk responses from a human vacuum. It doesn't help that the usually impeccable Mr. Jennings brings an exaggerated comic vehemence to the part of the surly husband.
Still, you can't dismiss a show that allows Ms. Linney to create such a beautifully shaded study in unhappiness. (Deborah Hedwall, by the way, was excellent in the same part in the original production, but because of Mr. Boutsikaris's high-voltage performance did not stand out in the same way.)
Ms. Linney has a rare gift for suggesting that what her characters do and say is at odds with their deeper feelings. Arms folded, chin high and mouth set in a willful smile, her Patricia greets Jonathan, a man who used her badly, with the look of someone who knows she has the upper hand but also doesn't have the strength to take advantage of it. In her mind, she lost the battle of her life long ago.
In the final scene Mr. Margulies transports Patricia and Jonathan to the moment of their first encounter, when she was a model and he an art student. When I first saw ''Sight Unseen,'' this conclusion seemed to coast a little too smoothly on the ready-made resonance of young, idealistic characters destined to tarnish.
This time, though, the same scene broke my heart, as Ms. Linney evoked an openness and fragility that clearly harbored the seeds of its own destruction. Ms. Linney, who lives in Manhattan, recently said in an interview that she would probably soon move to Los Angeles. As good as she is on screen, let's pray that this actress -- whose natural theatrical grace brings to mind Meryl Streep, a star long lost to movies -- doesn't deprive New York audiences of another rare presence that lights up a stage.
Ah, this is more like it. After a rough debut series at the handsomely restored Biltmore Theatre, the Manhattan Theatre Club officially kicked off the new Broadway season Tuesday with a return to quality as high as its ambitions.
Appropriately, the triumph is a revival of "Sight Unseen," Donald Margulies' archaeological dig into the bruised remains of love, art and Jewishness in the late 20th century. The Manhattan Theatre Club first staged this smart, entertaining, ultimately brokenhearted work Off-Broadway in 1992, in a production that also happened to introduce a recent Juilliard graduate named Laura Linney in the small but pivotal role of Grete, a savvy young art journalist from Germany.
Margulies went on to win the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "Dinner With Friends," while Linney became the thinking person's Hollywood golden girl and Frasier's last big, TV love. She has returned to star as Patricia, the former girlfriend of rich and famous New York painter Jonathan Waxman. Reunited in Daniel Sullivan's lean and emotionally meticulous production, the play and the actress both have grown more remarkable with time.
Adding yet another layer, this breakthrough work involves an artist's rediscovery of a portrait of Patricia he painted in college 15 years earlier. Jonathan - played with a self-lacerating mix of surety and insecurity by Ben Shenkman - finds the canvas hanging in the harsh English farmhouse where Patricia lives and works in unadorned isolation with her husband, Nick, an archaeologist exploring the revelations in a "medieval rubbish pit."
Blazing with hurt and Pinteresque menace, the brilliant Byron Jennings makes Nick a far more memorable chunk of the four-character mosaic than the character was a dozen years ago. This quietly sardonic, bemused but passionate man clearly adores his wife and colleague, who perks up so dangerously when her old love takes a night off from preparing his first London retrospective to zip to the countryside in a rented sports car.
As Nick studies ancient bones and coins, Margulies finds the bones under the skin of what could be just another story of a long-ago love affair. He also blows some of the glitter off the surface of the art marketplace, a subject that was probably more timely, though hardly more stageworthy, just after the boom years of the late '80s.
The play zigzags in time, skipping back to 1976 Brooklyn, after the funeral of Jonathan's mother, when he tells the adoring Patricia that he doesn't love her. Watch Linney's face - a face, even without makeup, too beautiful for the character - when the chemistry of her body seems to change. Watch her again in the final scene, a flashback to the studio where the fsee-spirited adventurer modeled for him and seduced him, only to become what she later calls the "sacrificial shiksa."
Linney has a translucence that allows us to watch her character simultaneously empathize with and comment on the people around her. Meanwhile, Shenkman makes it possible for us to find Jonathan charming, even as he straddles ethical chasms.
Ana Reeder steps confidently out of Linney's shadow as Grete, whose two alarmingly bright interview scenes with Jonathan shake up his defenses about his work and his Jewish identity. She is more of a sexpot than Linney was, which further charges the atmosphere. Jess Goldstein's perceptive costumes reveal the older Patricia's need to hide in baggy workhorse clothes, while keeping her from any whiff of parody during the '70s flashbacks.
The sets, by Douglas W. Schmidt, change easily from cold stone cottage to slick gallery to college-boy's art studio. Between scenes, we stare at a wall of Jonathan's old family photos, connecting the dots to even more stories left untold.
The only folks who sacrifice more for art's sake than artists themselves are the people they choose to love.
It isn't a novel premise, any more than it was in 1992, when Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen premiered off-Broadway. But for some reason, the Manhattan Theatre Club's new staging of Sight (* * * ½ out of four), which opened Tuesday at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, feels fresh.
The obvious answer would be Laura Linney, an actress of such natural radiance that the air seems to grow lighter whenever she inhabits it. Having played a supporting role in the original production, Linney now returns in the part of Patricia, a passionate woman who has resigned herself to a stoic, loveless life after being cruelly abandoned by, yes, an artist.
The artist in question is Jonathan Waxman, a tortured solipsist — is there any other kind? — who has become a darling among New York's cultural and media elite, inspiring articles with titles such as Charlatan or Genius? He goes to see Patricia, who is living in an English farmhouse, en route to a celebration of his work at a London gallery. She has been holed up there for nearly a decade with some adoring geezer, hoping to escape, or at least repress, memories of Jonathan and her dysfunctional family.
Jonathan wants something from his ex-lover, of course; men like Jonathan always want something. Since Margulies' plot zigs and zags chronologically, context and subtext aren't readily accessible at any given moment. The payoff is a pair of scenes at the end of the play, one devastating in its finality and futility; the other, set on the day when Patricia and Jonathan first meet, which is equally impressive for its sense of the irrepressible buoyancy new love brings.
The cast thrives under Daniel Sullivan's sensitive direction. As Jonathan, Ben Shenkman, so affecting as the angst-ridden lover of an AIDS victim in HBO's Angels In America, skillfully plays another selfish but guilty creature. Byron Jennings proves a delightfully droll foil as Patricia's long-suffering mate, a relatively coarse man who makes no secret of his resentment over Jonathan's visit.
Ana Reeder exudes pluck as a German interviewer — interrogator might be a better word — who gives Jonathan more than he bargained for during a press session.
Predictably, though, it is Linney's effortless grace and unforced grit, her luminous, heartbreaking humanity that you'll remember most. Had Sight Unseen opened just a few weeks earlier, this year's already tight Tony Awards race for best actress in a play might have been that much closer.
Perspective, which famously bedevils painters, also makes trouble for the Broadway revival of Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen." In his breakthrough play from 1992, Margulies examines the life of a successful artist through a narrative collage that collapses time to reveal the emotional crosscurrents between past and present. But Daniel Sullivan's new production for Manhattan Theater Club -- which is still searching for success in its new Broadway home at the Biltmore Theater -- is distorted by seriously uneven casting. The troubled artist who should stand at the center of the composition, played here by a charisma-free Ben Shenkman, tends to recede to its blurry edges, while his erstwhile muse, played by Laura Linney, remains in strikingly sharp focus, drawing the eye -- and the heart -- from start to finish.
As the play begins, Shenkman's Jonathan Waxman is exchanging awkward niceties with tongue-tied Nick (Byron Jennings) in an appropriately chilly farmhouse in England. Waxman, an American painter of staggering wealth and success, is ostensibly just paying a friendly call on an old girlfriend, Patricia (Linney), and her new husband, Nick, who live humbly near the archaeological dig where they work.
As friendly formalities give way to prickly reminiscence, Jonathan and Patricia's increasingly tense interplay reveals that unfinished business is his real purpose: He's hoping a reckoning with the muse he brutally abandoned more than a decade before can help him to discover just how -- and why -- he lost his way.
As the play shifts back and forth in time, revisiting turning points in their relationship, it becomes a mournful meditation on emotional roads not taken and the inevitable manner in which priorities and perspectives shift as life and experience erode the certainties of youth.
The play's elliptical structure is well served by Margulies' admirably delicate writing. At first he reveals the emotional landscape of Jonathan and Patricia's past by allowing small, surprising glints of emotion to filter through their strained formality. Confessing her aptitude for the life of daily struggle and small rewards she's chosen, Patricia defiantly says, "I like it here! I like the struggle! I like surviving obstacles. Hell, I survived you, didn't I?"
Linney's textured, continually rewarding performance beautifully serves the playwright's methods and ideas: In each scene she reveals a different aspect of Patricia, illuminating the ways in which character is shaped by time and experience. In that first scene, we sense the wariness beneath the warm, friendly surface, the residue of old emotion kept carefully in check in Jonathan's presence. Later we see Patricia preparing for the visit, anxious and frayed, heartbreakingly oblivious to the quiet pain she's inflicting on her husband by her obvious excitement at seeing her youthful love after an absence of 15 years. (Jennings gives an appealing, wry performance as this loving but unloved spouse.)
When the play jumps farther back in time to Jonathan and Patricia's last meeting -- he cruelly dismissed her from his life on the day of his mother's funeral -- we see with sharp clarity the sources of the bitter wells of feeling that are hinted at in their later encounter. The spirited, affectionate girl glimpsed here bears virtually no resemblance to the emotionally reticent woman we have just met.
And the production reaches an emotional climax when Patricia is forced to reveal just how deeply her life has been shaped by the loss of her youthful love -- and the long-unacknowledged hope that it could somehow be recaptured. When her husband quietly begs her to relinquish Jonathan's portrait of her, painted in the first flush of their romance, Patricia dissolves into unrestrained tears; it's devastating to watch this talisman of Patricia's hope-filled youth gently wrung from her grasp.
But "Sight Unseen" is not primarily the story of a woman unable to let go of the past, although it is this subsidiary strain that provides Sullivan's production with its most forceful moments. It's really the story of a man unable to engage with life as it passes by, moment to moment, who discovers too late the price to be paid -- as a man and an artist -- for the analytical way in which he's pursued a path to success.
Unfortunately, this process of discovery is delivered with minimal emotional force by Shenkman, whose perf never rises above a level of casual competence. Margulies' writing is understated -- a suggestive pencil sketch, allowing ample scope for the actor to color in subtext. But Shenkman isn't able to supply those layers of banked feeling that are needed to give the play its cumulative dramatic force.
Even when this cool character is provoked into uncharacteristic outbursts of anger or bitterness -- for example, when he is subtly antagonized by a vaguely anti-Semitic German art scholar, played with kittenish slyness by Ana Reeder (in a role that provided Linney with one of her first big breaks) -- Shenkman's Jonathan registers little beyond a whiny irritation. The shy, awkward young kid who must be seduced into a kiss; the confused young man lashing out at his adoring girlfriend; the world-weary artist sated by success and haunted by a sense of lost opportunity: They all seem interchangeable in Shenkman's performance, which desperately needs more inflection.
Shenkman is not the actor originally cast in the role, of course. When Manhattan Theater Club's promising first season on Broadway was unveiled, Liev Schreiber was announced for the part. He had to back out when a film directing project came through -- just one of many misfortunes to blemish MTC's ill-starred season. It's no comfort to the company, but you could argue there's a sad sort of rightness to this latest misfire: A play depicting former lovers facing up to what might have been arrives in a production that leaves audiences pining for the experience they might have had.