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Theater Review

Insight of 'Unseen'

ART's focus on the human side of Donald Margulies' play about a selfish artist makes for intriguing drama.

April 17, 1999|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a play like Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen," it's easy for viewers and critics to focus on sociopolitical statements and grand themes, rather than the emotions of a situation.

The themes are there in Alternative Repertory Theatre's current production in Santa Ana. But they aren't really what the play is about. The drama concerns an artist on the verge of being burned out, lost in the quicksand of success. But the real subject is the artist's fear of losing his potency, and his contact with his first muse in a futile attempt to recover it.

Jonathan Waxman (Scott Allen) is in England for a retrospective of his work. He calls his lover from student days, Patricia (Kathryn Byrd), who now is married to a British archeologist (John Gilbert).

Waxman is an insular, selfish man and--seen in a flashback to his breakup with Patricia--was always so. His aggressive attitude doesn't sit any easier with Patricia now than it did then. His unfeeling ability to use people, including the media, for his purposes is at the core of the evening he spends with Patricia and her intelligent, loving husband.

The fact that he tries covertly to remove his early portrait of Patricia in the middle of the night is the straw that stiffens Patricia's back and leads her husband Nick into a new "archeological" dig: exploring Waxman's work and its lack of real import despite Waxman's cavalier attitude about those he considers intellectually beneath him.

Margulies' script is as taut as a violin string and reverberates with intensity. It is built as a piece of music, in movements: the present, the past and brief glimpses of a disturbing interview with a German art critic (Heidi Sulzman). It is conducted by director Laurie T. Freed with passion and insight. Freed focuses on the human story, and the result is a rewarding and intriguing evening in theater.

The soul of the production is Byrd's performance as Patricia. There are numerous moments when Byrd's work is luminous and shimmering with detail. It is a rich portrait of a woman who has grown much more as an adult than Waxman, found her world and her work, and accepted who she is.

Waxman still doesn't know who he is, and that is made obvious in his violent reactions to sound reasoning from Patricia and her husband, and in the denial that engulfs him.

After a shaky start, Gilbert settles into a revealing portrait of the archeologist and husband whose own art is much more rewarding to him than Waxman's is to himself.

Particularly in the second act, Gilbert simmers with understanding and affection for a character on the other side of the coin from Waxman.

Although her role is smaller, Sulzman is marvelous as the German interviewer, calm and collected as she dissects Waxman's intent as an artist and succeeds in revealing his waffling and lack of purpose.

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* "Sight Unseen," Alternative Repertory Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends May 1. $18-$25. (714) 836-7929. Running time: 2 hours.

Scott Allen: Jonathan Waxman

Kathryn Byrd: Patricia

John Gilbert: Nick

Heidi Sulzman: Grete

An Alternative Repertory Theatre revival of Donald Margulies' drama. Producer: Gary Christensen. Director: Laurie T. Freed. Scenic design: Christa Bartels. Lighting design: Nick D'Antoni. Sound design: Gary Christensen. Costume design: Beverly Gore Norcross. Technical direction: Joel T. Cotter. Stage manager: Julia Stormont.

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