Directing blots out subtle sets of 'Sight'

March 15, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Olney Theatre's production of Donald Margulies' thought-provoking look at the high-stakes world of modern art, "Sight Unseen," is as schizophrenic as its title. Visually, it is inspired and subtle. Directorially, it is often overstated.

One of the most widely produced new American plays in regional theaters this season, "Sight Unseen" is about a superstar Jewish-American painter named Jonathan Waxman, who travels to England for a retrospective of his work and a reunion with a former model/girlfriend.

Thematically, this challenging play examines the impact of HTC wealth and fame on art. It also questions how much of an artist's past is reflected in his work and whether it is possible to reclaim the past.

Although these are difficult concepts to represent visually, set designer James Kronzer has come up with an ingenious solution that allows the audience to simultaneously see the past and the present. For example, four of the play's eight scenes take place in the rural English home of Jonathan's former girlfriend, Patricia. When Jonathan visits her there, we also see, in the background, the college art studio where they met 17 years earlier.

On one level, the set mimics the effect of walking into an art exhibit and seeing paintings done by an artist during different periods of his life -- a highly appropriate effect for a play about a retrospective exhibition.

On a deeper level, the set accomplishes the complex task of offering a scenic equivalent for the play's convoluted structure, which presents the action out of chronological order as the characters attempt to grapple with unresolved conflicts from their pasts. For instance, not unlike Pinter's "Betrayal," the last scene of "Sight Unseen" is the one in which Jonathan and Patricia first meet.

Presumably, director Jim Petosa had a hand in the look of the production, but his directorial hand is so heavy that it almost obscures Kronzer's visual subtlety. The most excessive case comes near the end, when Jonathan admits to Patricia, "I've lost my way somehow." Petosa stages this with Jonathan on his knees in front of a seated Patricia, as if he were praying for forgiveness. The only thing that would be more overt would be a pieta pose, and I half-expected that to come next.

Petosa may be attempting to underline a change in Jonathan, but it isn't convincing, in part because Paul Morella's Jonathan is so arrogant and humorless that, except for the final youthful scene, it's difficult to understand what Patricia saw in him. In contrast, Brigid Cleary's portrayal of Patricia is so well-rounded and moving that the weight the play, and the sympathy of the audience, go to her instead of to the protagonist.

Lawrence Redmond is suitably gruff and blunt as Patricia's husband. But Lee Mikeska Gardner, with her poor accent and soft, fawning manner, is miscast as a tough German journalist whose questions are supposed to enrage Jonathan.

"The job of the artist is not to spell everything out. You have to participate," Jonathan tells Patricia's husband. Olney's production succeeds when it invites the audience's participation, as it does with a set design that offers a visual symbol of the play's themes. It disappoints when it distrusts the audience and the script and attempts to force-feed those intriguing themes.

'SIGHT UNSEEN'

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Through March 27. Tickets: $20-$25

Call: (301) 924-3400

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