When Donald Margulies's Sight Unseen opens, we're in a house in the English countryside — but this is no cozy cottage surrounded by green, sheep-dotted fields. This is a gray, damp world. It's inhabited by Patricia, an American expatriate, and her British husband, Nick, whom she married on the rebound and won't allow to touch her; they're surly and miserable. Both archeologists, they show a remarkable lack of interest in their work. He is investigating a Roman latrine and she a late-medieval rubbish dump, both sites that could be treasure troves of information. But while Margulies has symbolic things to say about the passing of time and our interpretation of the past, the words "latrine" and "dump" really seem to shape the play's tone.
The action begins with the entry of Jonathan, a Jewish artist who's the flavor du jour in New York — famous, lionized, able to command huge sums of money for his works even before he's painted them. Jonathan happens to be Patricia's first, last and only love, and having come to London for an art-show opening, he's looking her up. Naturally, Nick doesn't like this; Jonathan's presence inspires him to a most un-English display of nastiness. Between Patricia's barely suppressed anger and her husband's rudeness, you wonder why Jonathan doesn't just leave. But he hangs on.
Worse is in store at a London art gallery, where Jonathan is interviewed by a German writer, Grete. When he speaks of the Holocaust as the horror by which all other horrors are judged, she comments that there have been massacres since — Rwanda, Darfur — and adds that "horror is horror." You can see him bridling at her observation that both artists and Jews are quintessential outsiders. Grete's interview ends with the kind of "gotcha" questions we expect on the political trail rather than the arts pages. Is it true, she wants to know, that despite his lofty artistic claims, he's represented by an agent, an agent he employed even before his work began to be known?
Presented by Paragon Theatre Ensemble through May 31, Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com.
This scene doesn't ring any truer than the first one. It's hard to believe that any reporter would stage an out-and-out attack on a respected artist, and the agent accusation is pretty feeble, anyway — unless Grete is insinuating that Jonathan is a money-grubbing Jew.
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There's a fair amount of talk throughout the play about art and truth, the meaning of success, the relationship between an artist and his work, and a portrait Jonathan painted of Patricia at the very beginning of their relationship that he now sees as pivotal to his development. There's also an argument about his painting of a black man and a white woman copulating in a desecrated Jewish cemetery. Is the couple making love, or is the man raping the woman? Is the portrayal of her hands clumpy and stylized, or are those hands clenched into fists? But Jonathan seems only slightly more passionate about his work than Nick and Patricia are about theirs, so it's unclear if he's a true artist or a media-created, short-term wonder.
Although his characters are unsatisfying, Margulies's plotting is deft; the story is told in a sequence of brief scenes that move backward and forward in time. The last shows Patricia and Jonathan coming together at the beginning of their relationship, charming, confused and very, very young. It's the most appealing scene of the evening.
Marty Lindsey makes Jonathan the least unpleasant of the four, and your sympathies tend to lie with him. Carolyn Valentine has her moments as Patricia, but she doesn't show you the depths of feeling that would make the woman significant and human. Jarrad Holbrook plays Nick, and, as always, his timing is excellent and his stage presence strong. But Nick still feels like a staged creation rather than a real person, and Suzanne Favette's Grete is also superficial. Brilliant performances might have saved this dour, sour-spirited play; merely competent ones can't do it.