Donald Margulies' breakthrough play from 1992 examines the life of a successful artist through a narrative collage that collapses time to reveal the emotional crosscurrents between past and present. But Daniel Sullivan's new production is distorted by seriously uneven casting.

Perspective, which famously bedevils painters, also makes trouble for the Broadway revival of Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen.” In his breakthrough play from 1992, Margulies examines the life of a successful artist through a narrative collage that collapses time to reveal the emotional crosscurrents between past and present. But Daniel Sullivan’s new production for Manhattan Theater Club — which is still searching for success in its new Broadway home at the Biltmore Theater — is distorted by seriously uneven casting. The troubled artist who should stand at the center of the composition, played here by a charisma-free Ben Shenkman, tends to recede to its blurry edges, while his erstwhile muse, played by Laura Linney, remains in strikingly sharp focus, drawing the eye — and the heart — from start to finish.

As the play begins, Shenkman’s Jonathan Waxman is exchanging awkward niceties with tongue-tied Nick (Byron Jennings) in an appropriately chilly farmhouse in England. Waxman, an American painter of staggering wealth and success, is ostensibly just paying a friendly call on an old girlfriend, Patricia (Linney), and her new husband, Nick, who live humbly near the archaeological dig where they work.

As friendly formalities give way to prickly reminiscence, Jonathan and Patricia’s increasingly tense interplay reveals that unfinished business is his real purpose: He’s hoping a reckoning with the muse he brutally abandoned more than a decade before can help him to discover just how — and why — he lost his way.

As the play shifts back and forth in time, revisiting turning points in their relationship, it becomes a mournful meditation on emotional roads not taken and the inevitable manner in which priorities and perspectives shift as life and experience erode the certainties of youth.

The play’s elliptical structure is well served by Margulies’ admirably delicate writing. At first he reveals the emotional landscape of Jonathan and Patricia’s past by allowing small, surprising glints of emotion to filter through their strained formality. Confessing her aptitude for the life of daily struggle and small rewards she’s chosen, Patricia defiantly says, “I like it here! I like the struggle! I like surviving obstacles. Hell, I survived you, didn’t I?”

Linney’s textured, continually rewarding performance beautifully serves the playwright’s methods and ideas: In each scene she reveals a different aspect of Patricia, illuminating the ways in which character is shaped by time and experience. In that first scene, we sense the wariness beneath the warm, friendly surface, the residue of old emotion kept carefully in check in Jonathan’s presence. Later we see Patricia preparing for the visit, anxious and frayed, heartbreakingly oblivious to the quiet pain she’s inflicting on her husband by her obvious excitement at seeing her youthful love after an absence of 15 years. (Jennings gives an appealing, wry performance as this loving but unloved spouse.)

When the play jumps farther back in time to Jonathan and Patricia’s last meeting — he cruelly dismissed her from his life on the day of his mother’s funeral — we see with sharp clarity the sources of the bitter wells of feeling that are hinted at in their later encounter. The spirited, affectionate girl glimpsed here bears virtually no resemblance to the emotionally reticent woman we have just met.

And the production reaches an emotional climax when Patricia is forced to reveal just how deeply her life has been shaped by the loss of her youthful love — and the long-unacknowledged hope that it could somehow be recaptured. When her husband quietly begs her to relinquish Jonathan’s portrait of her, painted in the first flush of their romance, Patricia dissolves into unrestrained tears; it’s devastating to watch this talisman of Patricia’s hope-filled youth gently wrung from her grasp.

But “Sight Unseen” is not primarily the story of a woman unable to let go of the past, although it is this subsidiary strain that provides Sullivan’s production with its most forceful moments. It’s really the story of a man unable to engage with life as it passes by, moment to moment, who discovers too late the price to be paid — as a man and an artist — for the analytical way in which he’s pursued a path to success.

Unfortunately, this process of discovery is delivered with minimal emotional force by Shenkman, whose perf never rises above a level of casual competence. Margulies’ writing is understated — a suggestive pencil sketch, allowing ample scope for the actor to color in subtext. But Shenkman isn’t able to supply those layers of banked feeling that are needed to give the play its cumulative dramatic force.

Even when this cool character is provoked into uncharacteristic outbursts of anger or bitterness — for example, when he is subtly antagonized by a vaguely anti-Semitic German art scholar, played with kittenish slyness by Ana Reeder (in a role that provided Linney with one of her first big breaks) — Shenkman’s Jonathan registers little beyond a whiny irritation. The shy, awkward young kid who must be seduced into a kiss; the confused young man lashing out at his adoring girlfriend; the world-weary artist sated by success and haunted by a sense of lost opportunity: They all seem interchangeable in Shenkman’s performance, which desperately needs more inflection.

Shenkman is not the actor originally cast in the role, of course. When Manhattan Theater Club’s promising first season on Broadway was unveiled, Liev Schreiber was announced for the part. He had to back out when a film directing project came through — just one of many misfortunes to blemish MTC’s ill-starred season. It’s no comfort to the company, but you could argue there’s a sad sort of rightness to this latest misfire: A play depicting former lovers facing up to what might have been arrives in a production that leaves audiences pining for the experience they might have had.

Sight Unseen

Biltmore Theater; 650 seats; $80 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in two acts by Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Creative

Sets, Douglas W. Schmidt; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Pat Collins; music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Roy Harris. Artistic director, Lynne Meadow. Opened May 25, 2004. Reviewed May 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Jonathan Waxman - Ben Shenkman Nick - Byron Jennings Patricia - Laura Linney Grete - Ana Reeder

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