“Sight Unseen” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

In Sight Unseen, playwright Donald Margulies has interesting and provocative things to say about art and ego and how people use each other. He also has fun things to say about the modern tendency to turn an artist whose talent may be mediocre into a superstar so in demand that collectors with more money than sense will pay to be on a waiting list for his next painting – whatever it may look like. Unfortunately, this listless, disappointing production dulls the sharp edges, and makes it unlikely you’ll be awake enough to debate the ideas when you leave the theatre.

Jonathan Waxman (Jason Weiss) is an artist who may, or may not, have talent. We hear descriptions of several of his paintings, but never actually see any; what we get are empty frames and fleeting glimpses of black and white reproductions as the pages of a catalog are flipped. Though he is celebrated in the United States, and is about to make his European debut with a solo show at a London gallery, another character questions whether anyone who can’t limn a realistic hand is really worth all the bother.

But if Jonathan’s talent is questionable, his ego and ambition are most certainly not. During the course of an interview with a German journalist (Casey McKinnon), we discover he hired a publicist well before he became famous, not – as he huffily contends – merely to help an overburdened star artist fend off the demands on his time by the hoi polloi. By the time we meet Jonathan, being his publicist is a full-time job.

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While in England for the show, Jonathan pays a visit to his long-ago inamorata, Patricia (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), from whom he had a nasty split shortly after his mother died. Jonathan is Jewish, Patricia was gentile, and his mother didn’t approve of his dating a shiksa. Jonathan very deliberately disinvited Patty from mom’s funeral, and when she showed up at the house afterward anyway, Jonathan cruelly told her it wasn’t his mother’s disapproval that mattered – he just didn’t love her. Patty stormed out, and the pair hasn’t seen each other for 15 years.

But Patty owns a portrait of her which Jonathan created the first day they met, and the painting seems to serve as a touchstone for Jonathan, the moment when (to him) he blossomed as an artist: he needs it to fill a crucial gap in his London show.

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Soooo… let’s have a visit! Even though Patty isn’t that eager to see Jonathan. Even though she’s now married to a British archeologist (Mark Belnick), who’s not terribly impressed with Jonathan. Even though the couple’s house in the English countryside – near the medieval rubbish dump they’re excavating – is cold and dank and uncomfortable. Even though… well… suffice it to say there are arguments and recriminations, and when Jonathan is discovered about to leave in the dead of the night with the painting, there’s confrontation, followed by a bit of negotiation.

The play zigzags back and forth in time, so we get to see Jonathan and Patty now (in 1991) and in the past – on the day of their breakup in 1976, and as students in 1973. The final scene is the day they met, when the fateful painting was created, and we’re given a glimpse of how things might have been if all that ego and ambition and prejudice could have been put aside.

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Making her LA theatrical debut, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris gives a lovely, understated performance as Patty, showing us both her strength and her vulnerability. The rest of the acting, unfortunately, is on the community-theatre level, ranging from variable accents to clichés of the snapping-fingers-to-show-you-have-an-idea variety.

Adam Haas Hunter’s cleverly-designed set creates several playing areas in the small space, which are not always used cleverly: the restless lighting design often raises or dims the wattage for no apparent reason as characters move from one area to the other, and a long inert scene which opens Act Two sees the three characters standing or sitting in the same positions for almost the entire time. The resourceful sound designer David B. Marling has come up with a track of era-setting music, which, alas, is set at an irritatingly loud level pre-show.

Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning Art – which opened a few years after Sight Unseen – dealt with how the purchase of a hideously expensive all-white painting affected a group of friends. Sight Unseen deals with how another (perhaps also overrated) piece of art – and its creator – affects lovers and the ones they love. It’s a fascinating topic, but I think I’ll just read the play next time.

Sight Unseen
Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Nicole Dominguez

Through April 26

Wasatch Theatrical Adventures
The Lounge Theatre
6201 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA

Tickets: 323-960-4412 or www.plays411.com/unseen


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