The Waxman Cometh

Break out the hankies and cue the violins when Jonathan Waxman, the tortured protagonist of Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen, begins his heart-wrenching tale: he's a painter. Adored by the masses. Subject of newspaper articles with headlines like "Bad Boy or Visionary?" Wealthy patrons from Tokyo to Park Avenue put their names on waiting lists for the honor of hanging the next Waxman on their wall.

In other words, Jonathan, who is not yet 40, has made it. Big Time. So, of course, he's aching, breaking up all over, adrift and clueless, searching for a key to unlock the secret of why it all seems so meaningless.

This is a play that should be really easy to hate. Not only is it about an artist (and that's a thin veneer; playwrights, unless they have absolutely no shame, would never write a play about a playwright), but it's also about an obscenely successful artist racked by guilt about his success and in desperate need of answers.

Here's one answer: shut up and sit down. There are a kajillion artists pouring double mocha lattes at Starbucks who would poke out their eyes to hear the faintest hint of the praise aimed in your direction.

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But it's hard to hate this play-no, make that impossible. Margulies is a talented, insightful playwright with a keen ability to explore complex issues and ideas in deceptively simple ways. While this Alternative Repertory Theatre production doesn't do anything to particularly illuminate the material, neither director Laurie Freed nor her capable cast hinders or hampers the script. And sometimes, that's all you need to make a production work.

Some 17 years ago, Jonathan (Scott Allen) and Patricia (Kathryn Byrd) met at a New York university. They began an intense relationship, given much of its vigor by the fact that Jonathan was a brilliant, if still unproven, painter trying to overcome his typically (surprise!) Jewish guilt and Patricia was a quite willing, eager and independent goya who unlocked his creative fire. The two carried on for two years until Jonathan broke the news that he didn't love Patricia-dropping the bombshell during his mother's funeral and after Patricia offers to give him a hummer.

Sight Unseen, which skips around in time and sequence, begins 15 years after that rather tumultuous breakup. Jonathan, now famous and rich, is making his European debut. He's taking the opportunity to visit Patricia for the first time since the end of their affair. She now lives with her archaeologist husband, Nick (John Gilbert), in a Norfolk farmhouse, where they are excavating a Roman latrine. It soon becomes clear that Jonathan isn't there to share a cup of Earl Grey. There are personal and professional ulterior motives in abundance, even if Jonathan isn't sure what they are.

The theme at work has something to do with responsibility-personal and professional and where the twain shall meet. The personal involves the repercussions of Jonathan's stunningly selfish dismissal of Patricia. Although it's clear from flashback scenes featuring the young Jonathan and Patricia that these two were not meant to live the middle-class life of home and hearth, it's also clear that, for Jonathan at any rate, his time with Patricia was the most creative and dangerously exhilarating period of his life. It was a time when he had nothing; now that he has everything, he is miserable.

You can tell everything about a culture by what it throws away, Patricia says. She's talking about the Roman toilet, but she might as well be talking about Jonathan and the relationship he threw away 15 years before. In the process, it's clear he threw away his muse, if not indeed his soul. Patricia, meanwhile, has thrown away her passion. Emotionally crippled by the breakup, she has fled to dreary old England, opting for a dusty, unexciting life among ruins that's spent with a man for whom she has no passion.

That emotional life-which this cast isn't always capable of transmitting-is intriguing enough. But Margulies doesn't stop there. He's interested in the role of the artist in society and reveals his insights-dangerously-through talking. But what could come off as very pedestrian or, conversely, academic exchanges are delivered instead in two volatile and fascinating inquisitions. One is administered by Grete (a verrrrry German and effective Heidi Sulzman), an icy, intellectual critic who interviews Jonathan for a leading European art journal. She demands to know how Jonathan can reconcile his fabulous material success with his bleak subjects. Mixed in with Grete's accusations are hints of anti-Semitism, the suggestion that Jonathan lacks artistic integrity, and a forceful attempt to make an artist explain what the artist doesn't seem capable of explaining (which is why he painted it, presumably, rather than wrote about it). Nick (in a precisely detailed interrogation courtesy of Gilbert) handles the other inquisition. He finds nothing valuable in Jonathan's work, only obscenity and sensationalism, and wonders how any artist can truly feel that he or she is important to society.

Jonathan's response is intriguing -not what he says but how he says it. As Jonathan, Allen's anger and defensiveness build in each situation until he reveals Jonathan's weakness. We never truly feel what Jonathan believes about the role of an artist or the issue of selling out because we're not sure if Jonathan believes anything at all. Hence his last name: Waxman.

The personal and professional paths of the play intersect in Jonathan's portrait of Patricia. She kept the painting after the breakup, and it now hangs over the mantle, a source of constant irritation to Nick. Although it lacks the bold technique of Jonathan's more recent work, there's a candor about it, a sense of connection and commitment lacking in the rest of Jonathan's oeuvre.

Arriving in Norfolk, Jonathan realizes his portrait of Patricia documents a time when he didn't paint from memory or merely to fulfill commissions or make headlines, but rather when the fire burned inside him and there was nothing else he could do with it but paint. It's honest and real. It's also not his anymore-literally and metaphorically.

To condense this dense play into one sentence: you can't exist in two worlds. Jonathan cannot be the rich, hollow success of his current life and the poverty-stricken but soulfully rich artist of his youth. And what's most haunting about this play-and this production-is that it's unclear whether one can ever hope to strike a balance between the extremes of rich-but-poor and poor-but-rich.

But what makes Margulies such an important contemporary playwright is the universality of the question. This isn't just about a painter trying desperately to reconnect with an earlier, more honest period of his life. It's also about any and all of us who cling fervently to the past, to the memory of a relationship, a journey, an idealism that we no longer feel. And while it's temping to view Sight Unseen as a modern-day morality play (be careful what you wish for; don't sell out because you'll lose your soul), it's just as tempting to consider another possibility the play raises: maybe the very fact that we are so willing to hang on to our past is what prevents us from living the lives we think we should be leading in the present.

Sight Unseen at Alternative Repertory Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 836-7929. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through May 1. $22-$25.

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