Angst for the Memories

Donald Margulies, an already solid playwright, committed a strange and wonderful act a few years ago: he wrote an honest-to-goodness play. Not the usual cheesy sitcom disguised as drama, or a wild experiment in masturbatory avant-garde that no one understands but the author. He constructed instead a work of art, a piece of literature, an actual contribution to the field of drama. It's called Sight Unseen, it won an Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play in 1992, and it's now playing at the Caldwell Theatre. The only potential problem with both the piece and its outstanding South Florida production lies in the scarcity of tickets; the Caldwell keeps adding performances, which just as quickly sell out.

Small wonder. Margulies's central character, Jonathan Waxman, presents a fascinating character study of a man whose soul dribbles away in direct proportion to his rising star. A mere nine years ago, Waxman painted apartments for a living. Today, his angst-ridden, semipornographic canvases sell for thousands, and there's a waiting list for his next work. Articles describe him as the "bad boy visionary" of the art world. And of course, the publicist he hired two years before making it big keeps the hype machine rolling right along. After all, how can aspiring artists get anywhere today without manufactured scandal and controversy?

Problem is, Waxman's lost his way. He hasn't painted in quite some time, his beloved father has just died, he's about to become a father himself, and he's feeling a bit ragged around the edges. Furthermore, he needs something explosive, something worthy of more publicity for his big exhibition, his retrospective, in London. By happy coincidence, Jon's first muse, Patricia, the college sweetheart of more than fifteen years ago, is living in England digging up Roman latrines and late Medieval rubbish with her archaeologist husband Nick. Over Nick and Pat's mantelpiece happens to hang a "seminal Waxman," as Nick calls it A a portrait of Patricia when she "was so devoid of self" that she would have done anything for Jonathan A the perfect media hook.

In the first scene, the famous Waxman arrives in Nick and Pat's humble Norfolk cottage, supposedly just to visit. From then on, the play skips back and forth from past to present, depicting a believable portrait of life's big frustrations. From the beginning, bitterness hangs heavy in the air. Pat can never forgive Jonathan for dumping her just because she wasn't Jewish, especially when he ended up marrying another shiksa. Nick writhes internally from the knowledge that Pat married him simply to stay in England, and loves only the memory of Jonathan. Meanwhile, all Jon's got on his mind is stealing his now precious and irreplaceable canvas, a work that he painted when he still owned some fire and passion, and not just the need to garner more and more fame.

Add to this explosive mix of characters an anti-Semitic German art critic who questions Jon's authenticity as artiste, interrogating more than interviewing him at his London show, and you have the makings of a drama with varying levels of complexity. Superficially, the tale is merely about a painter trying to steal back his first work from his ex-girlfriend, but further excavation reveals deep-rooted issues beneath the surface. Jon's struggle with his own Judaism, Pat's compromises for the sake of living without further pain, Nick's desperate longing for his wife's love, combined with everyone's self-denial of who and what they are collide head-on with unyielding and difficult truths.

Director Michael Hall, one of South Florida's premier talents, assembled the perfect cast to embody Margulies's work. As Jonathan, Peter Bradbury demonstrates that he's grown into an actor of great charisma, skill, and ingenuous appeal. His New York accent waxes and wanes with too much regularity, but it is hardly noticeable thanks to Bradbury's delicate hand at communicating Waxman's frail but quietly egomaniacal persona. Equal to him in both energy and honesty is Pat Nesbit as Patricia. To watch the two battle themselves, each other, and the ghosts of the past is to see acting at its finest. John Fitzgibbon as Nick projects the perfect embittered Englishman, all acid and spittle, while Barbara Bradshaw as Grete, the art critic, is appropriately disturbing with her arch Jew-baiting remarks.

One of the greatest feats Nesbit and Bradbury pull off is a convincing passage of time. In their scenes as college lovers, Nesbit bubbles with youthful energy and adoration, while a heavily accented Brooklyn-born Jonathan brays with shyness. In later years Jon makes sure he sounds more cosmopolitan, makes his shyness an effective act, and Nesbit slips into resigned life-fatigue. Such details in character work, making the flashbacks clear and the transitions smooth, are the mark of first-class direction and performance.

Flipping between an art gallery, Nick and Pat's cottage, a college dorm room and Jonathan's old bedroom in Brooklyn, the very clever and talented James Morgan fashioned sets that change with ease and communicate both locale and time period. Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting subtly complements the different locations as well as the characters' many mood shifts. Even the music A the classic "Shadow of Your Smile" A fits the piece like a well-tailored suit.

If you can get tickets, rush to view Sight Unseen at the Caldwell. It's the sort of play that made me do something afterward I hadn't done in a while: think. And that's the joy of true art, the layers that creative audience members uncover long after the performance is over. Unfortunately, most new works today act like cotton candy A sweet on the tongue and then swiftly gone. Margulies's work reminds me more of the memory of a fine French meal: lingering delightfully on the palate, satisfying, yet producing a hunger for more.


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