Though Donald Margulies’ 1991-92 “Sight Unseen” isn’t a courtroom drama per se, it indicts, tries and convicts its celebrity protagonist in a real star chamber. The proceedings — often incisive, sometimes witty — are capped by a surprise hostile witness in the person of defendant Jonathan Waxman (Anthony Crane), a controversial modern artist who’s lost his soul in thrall to Mammon. Esther Emery’s trim Old Globe revival musters a trio of fine performances to bring some evenhandedness to Waxman’s railroading.
On the eve of his first U.K. show, Jonathan shows up at the rustic Norfolk home of erstwhile muse and main squeeze Patricia (Kelly McAndrew) and diffident spouse Nick (Ron Choularton). Archaeologists, they “sift through piles of ancient rubbish every day,” aptly enough for our hero’s restless self-examination.
Through a series of ingenious but never confusing flashbacks and flash-forwards, Margulies assembles the case against a once soulful Jewish-American painter whose need for success at any price has led him to abandon his ideals unbeknownst to himself. Sight unseen, you might say.
Vanity Fair inquires “Charlatan or Genius?,” and those in Jonathan’s orbit answer with serene confidence although their motives might fairly be deemed suspect. Patricia still resents her long-ago rejection, and Nick is sullenly aware he remains second-best in his wife’s affections. Still, we’re to take them at their word in condemning Jonathan’s loss of goodness, and tendency to shock for shock’s (and wealth’s) sake.
Even condescending, lightly Jew-baiting interviewer Grete (Katie Fabel, crippled by a shrilly overdone German accent) has his number: The early painting “has an openness … virtually absent in your later work.” Jonathan’s stage direction is “She’s right,” paving the way for his eleventh-hour admission of his oeuvre’s shallowness and the need to scrape off the B.S. to return to his early purity.
Because Margulies leaves so little ambiguity about where virtue lies in that last analysis, “Sight Unseen” ends up espousing a curiously naive view in which an artist’s selling inevitably leads to selling out. It’s a theme he explores, albeit with more nuance, in such later works as “Collected Stories” and “Brooklyn Boy.”
In truth Jonathan displays mostly probity and honor in his dealings with others, while vigorously defending his methodology and intent.
(The remarkably intelligent and charismatic Crane is quite persuasive in so doing.) But counterarguments are to little avail. The play is determined to skewer an ambitious young painter’s button-pushing tactics and hiring a PR rep for career advancement, and skewer him it does.
If the treatment of the artist’s dilemma seems superficial, the romantic triangle is anything but. Emery carefully guides her thesps to bring out the complex subtext beneath the most mundane conversations in that Norfolk farmhouse kitchen. Crane and McAndrew deftly manage the give-and-take of ex-lovers with unfinished business neither dares bring up, while Choularton banks his fires but takes his proper shots through a sad, sweetly appealing alcoholic haze.
This keenly observed domestic drama, expressively lit by Chris Rynne, fits neatly into the makeshift but serviceable Copley Auditorium in Balboa Park’s San Diego Museum of Art, which will meet the Old Globe’s arena needs through the end of its new space’s construction in 2010.