Portrait of the artist as a young capitalist

New Theater Company serves up artistic angst with precision in Sight Unseen

There are two plays that alternate in New Theatre Company's crisp, occasionally volatile production of Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen. One is the portrait of an aborted relationship, the other a savage, expressionistic landscape of the terrain between art and identity, commercial success and exploitation. You have to wonder if Margulies felt compelled to dilute his violent brushstrokes across the canvas of the '80s New York gallery scene with the anemic watercolors of ill-fated romance to dodge charges of cold misanthropy that his play might have earned.

The love story, about the relationship between a rising Jewish painter (Jim Jorgensen) and his romantically forthright figure model (Charlotte Akin Jorgensen), is portrayed in Pinteresque reverse time (we clock the association from bitter ruins to first passionate kiss). But this seems precisely the kind of cynical gimmick disguised as sophistication that Margulies exposes so vividly in the rest of the play, which charts how a man who wields his ethnicity as a confrontational dagger in his work suddenly hits the rocks when people begin to question if his anger has become something of a commercial artifice.

Inspiration and its transient nature saturate New Theatre Company's production of Sight Unseen, from the painted Van Gogh flourishes that roll across the walls of director/designer Bruce Coleman's set as well as a television that intersperses scenes of Kirk Douglas busily creating in the cheesy 1956 Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life. When Margulies' script really cooks, which is, thankfully, about three quarters of the time, you can feel the bonfire of international adulation and big money begin to singe the inner world of Jonathan, the turbulent painter played by Jorgensen. We can smell the acrid odor as everything he's ever grasped to fortify his artistic pursuits begins to curl at the edges and evaporate.

It's surely no mistake that while in London for his first European one-man exhibit, Jonathan should contact Patricia (Akin Jorgensen), his first serious love during his student days at a Brooklyn art academy. Since moving to England, she's become an archaeologist and currently works with her saturnine British husband, Nick (Terry Martin), who's overseeing the excavation of a Roman latrine.

Patricia played a vital role as Jonathan's muse for several reasons. She was more sexually confident than any young woman he'd ever met, and certainly more so than he. His portraits of her (which, intriguingly, we're never allowed to glimpse), although obviously immature, were more relaxed and passionate than anything he's allowed himself to do since. Plus, as a gentile, she served as Jonathan's first taste of controversy, albeit in a private context; their relationship was a constant source of irritation to his orthodox Jewish family.

This propensity for shocking authority figures proves to be Jonathan's key to the treasure chest of New York's overinflated '80s art market. He begins to paint violent, stylized, symbolic depictions of racism--especially anti-Semitism--in America. Meanwhile, the death of both parents tears a hole in the fabric of his ethnic--or is that artistic?--identity. His staunch Jewishness is what leads him, shortly after a family funeral, the mirrors in the house draped in black, to break it off with Patricia, who will relocate to London and marry a man who offers her an exciting professional life but a considerably less passionate domestic one.

Sedately but precisely staged by New Theatre Company's artistic director, Bruce Coleman, Sight Unseen spares us what might otherwise have been portentous vacillation between the professional and the personal in the lives of Jonathan and Patricia. Jonathan's is the dominant story here--his frustration as a sitting duck atop the art-world heap and his romantic woes intersect symbolically in a portrait he had given to Patricia that she's hung over the mantel at her English home. He feels it's a missing link between his art student past and his present stardom.

But stepping out of the New York fishbowl and into the shark tank of European critics, Jonathan suddenly finds his cachet as a wealthy, near-activist painter under unprecedented scrutiny. Patricia's husband, Nick, hilariously played with a kind of blue-collar drollness by Terry Martin, uses his total lack of art education as a box knife to figuratively rip a painting by Jonathan to shreds. Meanwhile, a rather blunt German art critic named Grete (Melanie Stroh) begins to question Jonathan's artistic motives--as he descends from fearless revelation to cheap provocation--to the point where, in an angry scene, he accuses her of "Jew-baiting." In both encounters, the painting under discussion, once again oft-described but never seen, shows a black man having sex with a white woman in a Jewish cemetery. The two points of controversy: is the black man forcing himself on the white woman? And why a Jewish cemetery?

Because the failed romance between Jonathan and Patricia never seemed to have much substance in the first place, there's not a lot of lingering sadness over the awkward silences and fumbling discomfort in their scenes together. Thanks to understated performances by Jim Jorgensen and Charlotte Akin Jorgensen, a married acting duo who might easily have chosen to emphasize this angle for their own exhibitionistic reasons, the central relationship in Sight Unseen remains tethered to the play's larger, and more intriguing, question: What does an artist do when the well of inspiration he's come to depend on--indeed, that his very reputation rests on--runs dry? Jonathan needed Patricia to help him find his voice, to gain the technical expertise in his early works that would enable him to articulate the Jewish rage that would make his name. But once a fellow starts earning reams of international publicity and several hundred thousand dollars a year off the outrage of the marginalized, can he continue to legitimately claim membership among that group?

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