At first blush, a viewer of Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen may feel unprepared for the content of the play without some understanding of Yiddish and the intricacies of high-art debate. But don’t schvitz.
This 1992 Obie Award-winning drama (off-Broadway’s Best New American Play) liberally drops the word shiksa (that’s a disparaging term for a non-Jewish woman), talks of sitting shiva (that’s Judaism’s seven-day formal mourning period) and serves up savage criticism of ego-bloated postmodernist painting (which boils down to defining “good art”). But Sight Unseen is about more than a Jewish artist, and the character details are just window-dressing for an unflinching glimpse into the tension and awkwardness that come with having to face simple regret. And Margulies’ play, especially as it’s staged here in the impressive debut of local independent company K-Mo Productions, is the sort of brutally realistic glimpse that renders the particulars almost insignificant, honing in instead on the desperate tones and emotional histories that seep through in the dialogue; it’s like overhearing neighbors fighting through an open window, when the revelation itself, not any specific words, is what’s so jarring.
The histories that matter in Sight Unseen are those of newly famous Jewish artist Jonathan Waxman (Monte Jenkins) and his former college love, Patricia (Dianna Andrade). Jonathan’s London exhibit is about to be unveiled and, unexpectedly, he’s called Patricia—now married and living unceremoniously in the British countryside—for the first time in 15 years. Their reunion has all the charm of a colonoscopy: uncomfortable, necessary, and revealing of a record of unhealthy neglect. Their breakup was bad, but despite Patricia’s bitterness and Jonathan’s defensiveness, their body language and reunited sincerity hints that neither is quite over what they once shared.
Hovering on the periphery of this catch-up session is Patricia’s “painfully shy” archeologist husband, Nick (Howard Kingston). After initially welcoming Jonathan with a shrug and not-quite-polite greeting, he later reappears with a bottle of scotch in hand and his courage in tow, absolutely skewering his guest for haunting his marriage and making ridiculous sums of money from what he thinks is crap art. Nick knows exactly what Jonathan meant—and perhaps still means—to Patricia.
The reunion takes up the opening scene, and from there Margulies’ script hopscotches through time to provide some context—Patricia and Nick an hour before Jonathan’s arrival, Jonathan and Patricia in Brooklyn 15 years earlier and the initial collegiate meeting of the two lovers. Also interspersed are two scenes of a German art critic (Maria Giarizzo) interviewing Jonathan about his exhibit—a complete change-up in tenor to the rest of the play, but like all the scenes, pivotal to providing an explanation of the main relationship. The mixed time line isn’t as confusing as it is revealing, and it works especially well with Margulies’ knack for personalizing his characters’ decisive moments. (Eight years after Sight Unseen, the playwright won a Pulitzer for Dinner with Friends, another drama about a relationship analyzed over time.)
Margulies provides a well-crafted script, but this production’s success rests on the shoulders of Sara Birk’s steady, un-muddled direction and a quartet of outstanding performances. The rapport between Jenkins and Andrade as Jonathan and Patricia is uncannily natural and honest, and repeatedly lands perfectly on the line between angst and desire. They acheive a realistic chemistry, both verbally and physically, as their characters figure out how to reconnect, and the authentic pairing makes for great live theater. The accomplished Kingston is, for the first time in recent memory, relegated to a supporting role as Nick, but he still commands the stage when required and looks imminently more comfortable playing off the surrounding talent here than he did as the lead trying to carry last month’s 1984 by The Mercury Theatre. Even Giarizzo, in her brief appearance as Grete the German interviewer, nails her part in a fine follow-up to her leading role earlier this year in Anton in Show Business.
Prolific local promoter, UM student and K-Mo Productions executive producer Kris Monson has set the bar high with his company’s theatrical debut. The same grassroots entrepreneur who funds themed dance parties throughout the year at the Red Light Green Room, and took a chance hosting last summer’s Foam Party, Monson fronted the cash to stage Sight Unseen in UM’s Masquer Theatre on a handsomely designed 16-by-16-foot set, used his connections in the Drama Department for guidance (most of the faculty and staff is thanked in the program), and then kept the frills to a minimum. The result is a professional product that keeps the focus on the script and the talent.
It’ll be interesting to see how Monson and company build on this debut and meet the challenge of producing the campy musical Reefer Madness at the Wilma Theatre as planned in August. But here, at least, he’s put together a show as capably packaged and performed as anything by UM, MCT Community Theatre or Montana Rep Missoula. It’d be overzealous to declare Sight Unseen a masterpiece, like one of Jonathan’s paintings, but it’s certainly a mechaye (that’s a pleasure).
Sight Unseen is performed in UM’s Masquer Theatre through Saturday, May 27, and again Tuesday, May 30, through Friday, June 2, at 7:30 PM. $13/$10 students.