Breaking Up Is Hard to Do 

Unearthing the past can be hazardous.

A surprisingly biting game is afoot at Playhouse West with Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen, the story of two ex-lovers looking for closure fifteen years after their breakup. Margulies went on to write Dinner with Friends about two couples, longtime friends, rocked by an act of infidelity.

While the two plays tell different stories, the seeds of Dinner are visible in Sight Unseen. Many of the similarities are structural. Margulies seems to enjoy moving the action of a play back and forth in time, often setting a scene as much as fifteen or twenty years before the one preceding it. Some of the same concepts come up as well, such as the contrast between young, inexperienced characters and the saddened, armored people they will become.

Sight Unseen centers on a retrospective of protagonist Jonathan Waxman's paintings. Waxman (Sean J. O'Neil) is 37 when the play opens, wealthy, married, and expecting his first child. He is also convinced that his career is waning. The retrospective is showing in London, so he calls an old girlfriend, Patricia (Heather Mathieson), who is leading a quiet expatriate life in the English countryside with husband Nick (Patrick McDonnell). Jonathan's reception at her home is colder than he expected, literally and figuratively. The two attempt to hash through the relationship they had in college while Nick and German art journalist Grete (Teresa Wilkes Levine) prowl around the periphery of their uneasy reunion, growling and snapping.

Why has Jonathan really come? Is he trying to expiate his guilt for the way he and Patricia broke up? Is Patricia happy with her choice to be a struggling archaeologist living far from her native land? And why, exactly, does Grete seem so determined to piss off Jonathan?

A big difference between this play and Dinner is the filling out of each character. By Dinner, Margulies had gotten the hang of giving all his characters something to do. Here he's created a pair of three-dimensional characters and then added a couple of others (Grete and Nick) to show us sides of Jonathan and Patricia we might otherwise miss. The ploy is most obvious with Grete, whose interview sends Jonathan stalking out in anger. I never understood Grete's purpose -- it seemed she was there only so we could appreciate Jonathan's experience of being Jewish. At one point she asks, "What bothers you more -- the question, or the fact that a German is asking it?"

Meanwhile Nick, according to the text, adores Patricia, although I didn't experience that from McDonnell's portrayal until the penultimate scene. What is obvious is Nick's heaping animosity toward Jonathan. Patricia, it seems, never got over the breakup, becoming a bitter, emotionally stilted woman who married a man who'd keep her as far as possible from the scene of her unhappy past. There's also the question of money -- Jonathan's got it, Nick hasn't. The question of whether Patricia would have been happier married to Jonathan is uppermost in Nick's mind, despite her protestations that she's perfectly happy freezing away in Norfolk, digging up ancient Roman artifacts.

Nick also doesn't think much of modern art -- or indeed anything painted after the Renaissance -- leading to a dissection of the meaning of art that I, an art-school dropout, enjoyed thoroughly. "There was an energetic little bloke," Nick says of Picasso. Then he and Patricia systematically fillet and butterfly Jonathan's work ("If I don't get it, is that my failure or yours?" Nick asks Jonathan), artistic celebrity, and the bloated art market.

Uneasy assimilation, loveless marriage, artistic faddishness, battles in the kitchen -- I have to give props to Playhouse West for putting this one on. The play doesn't have a pat, easy resolution, it doesn't stretch to be heartwarming, and it has teeth. When one character used the word "blowjobs," I thought half the audience would have to be carried out on stretchers. There is much in this production that's provocative and entertaining, and the question of whether past hurts can ever be truly eased is given a thorough airing.

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