A dozen years ago, critics saw Donald Margulies bring a Philip Roth character to the stage. Some scenes have aged better than others.
When Donald Margulies‘ Sight Unseen made its New York debut in 1992, it was advertised with a photograph showing Grete, a German journalist, interviewing artist Jonathan Waxman, in London for a major retrospective. Within minutes, Grete asks Jonathan, painter of the controversial Walpurgnisnacht, an image of interracial love (or maybe rape) in a desecrated Jewish cemetery, to “reconcile the success of your work with its rather bleak subject matter.” He manages to evade most of her questions, but in the second act, when Grete calls Jonathan’s representation of middle-class domesticity “obviously Jewish,” he gets defensive: “To say that the subjects of my painting are Jewish subjects, because a Jew happened to paint them, that’s totally absurd!”
Laura Linney and Jonathan Dennis Boutsikaris in 1992
Frank Rich, then the Times‘ theater critic, pointed out that the brilliance of this short scene lay in its carefully wrought ambiguity: “Is Grete in fact anti-Semitic? Or is Jonathan…just exploiting the charge of anti-Semitism to deflect this German journalist’s legitimate attacks on his work and integrity?” The question that effectively ends the interview, after all, concerns not Jonathan’s religion but his publicist.
When Sight Unseen returned to New York this spring, Rich’s successor, Ben Brantley, wrote that Jonathan’s confrontation with Grete is “what most people who saw the show then remember most vividly.” Yet in promoting the revival, the Manhattan Theater Club avoids the play’s overarching questions of Jewish cultural identity, focusing instead on Jonathan’s visit with his ex-girlfriend Patricia. Critics have also paid less heed to the Jewish dimension; in The New Yorker, John Lahr barely addressed the interview scenes, except to call them “well-written.”
To be fair, it’s possible that a mere mention of the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright is enough to suggest the play’s concerns. Margulies’ The Model Apartment is a dark comedy about two Holocaust survivors shadowed by their schizophrenic daughter and their past; Collected Stories follows an aging intellectual from the Delmore Schwartz era and a gentile protégée who argues for “the right to write about Jews;” and God of Vengeance resets Sholem Asch‘s Yiddish melodrama on the Lower East Side.
Yet the critical downplaying of Sight Unseen‘s Jewish themes also reflects an obvious imbalance in the revival. The action takes place within the walls of Patricia’s country home, as Jonathan discovers and then tries to steal an early nude he made of his former muse. The story unfolds out of sequence, darting back and forth over a 17-year span and ending with Jonathan and Patricia’s first meeting, when he painted the portrait. The Village Voice‘s Michael Feingold, who called Jonathan “a Philip Roth figure come to life” in 1992, still claims the question of cultural identity “runs parallel to the play’s more general questions about love, art, career, and the wrenched perspective time gives all three.” But as the love triangle gathers steam, the interview scenes—and the larger cultural questions they raise—feel more like a distraction.
Laura Linney, Byron Jennings, and Ben Shenkman in 2004
This shift may be a deliberate choice by director Daniel Sullivan, or it may just be a function of the acting. Ben Brantley is perceptive in saying that Laura Linney, who played Grete in the original and now plays Patricia, “gives the one unconditionally authentic performance in this production.” It hardly helps that Ben Shenkman plays Jonathan fairly flat, or that Ana Reeder’s Grete sounds like a parody. Neither actor is self-aware enough to project the kind of ambiguity Frank Rich delighted in a dozen years ago.
But even with more parity among the actors, the interview scenes might still feel heavy-handed in 2004. In his notes to the published play, Margulies explains that Sight Unseen grew out of an abandoned 1988 project called Heartbreaker, following Jonathan from puberty through fatherhood. Margulies wove in the interview scenes after remaking Jonathan from an upstart into a celebrity.
Of all the scenes, these seem to have aged least well, and not just because the art world has changed (in 1992, critics frequently compared Jonathan to Eric Fischl). When Jonathan storms off the stage, Grete’s supposed anti-Semitism is less striking than his paranoia: “Wait a minute, wait a minute. What is this Jewish stuff creeping in here?”
Creeping is hardly the right word. Without the interview, Sight Unseen still has a slew of references to shtetls, shiva calls, bar mitzvahs—dialogue that’s become common on television shows from Will and Grace to The O.C. to South Park. Jewish identity has been so casually assimilated into contemporary culture that the play’s more serious debate about Jewish identity and Jewish art feels not only awkward but dated. Yet while the encounter with the German critic seems strangely contrived, the hostility from Patricia’s English husband, Nick—sexual jealousy with an undercurrent of anti-Semitism—sounds more familiar. “Circumcision isn’t common practice in the U.K., you know,” Nick says. “Jews still do it the world over, don’t they. On religious grounds. Here the risk is too great. Too many accidents. Too many boy sopranos.” It could be a harmless observation, but Byron Jennings delivers the line with menacing pleasure. Nick’s racism and Jonathan’s heritage are never the point of the scene, just another layer—and maybe that’s why this exchange seems so real.