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[whitespace] Sight Unseen
Dennis Rosenberg

In One Sitting: Linda Jones poses for Timothy Hull.

City Lights illuminates ideas about modern paintings in 'Sight Unseen'

By Michael J. Vaughn

SOMETHING'S EATING Jonathan Waxman. A painter who has climbed the Mapplethorpe shock-the-public ladder to success, he has discovered the dark side of celebrity, coming up against a public that is far more interested in the persona than in the work and realizing that he no longer has the luxury of playing the renegade outsider. In Donald Margulies' 1992 Sight Unseen, now being presented at City Lights, Jonathan seeks out the missing pieces in the English cottage shared by his college girlfriend, Patricia, and her archaeologist husband, Nick. Typically for an artist, he finds his hopes not in his old lover but in a painting of his old lover, a souvenir of their romance that hangs over Patricia's fireplace and carries hints of the creative passion which he has since lost.

Margulies uses Waxman's dilemma to put the whole idea of modern art on trial. Nick, who has plenty of incentives from years of living in Jonathan's large shadow, begins his attack on Jonathan's most famous work--a portrayal of seemingly violent sex between a white woman and a black man in a Jewish cemetery--with the dreaded words "I don't get it" and proceeds with the familiar argument that art should be beautiful, not pornographic. Later, an art critic named Grete (played with a fabulously irritating German accent by Jennifer Fagundes) picks at Waxman's liver with index-card questions asking why, if he is such a truth-seeking outsider, does he have a full-time publicist? And implying that his shocking images are fueled less by artistic ideals than by marketing strategies. Jonathan evades his accusers with the familiar disclaimer "It's not important what I think it means" and then later, with Grete, resorts to accusations of "Jew-baiting."

I saw the original production of Sight Unseen on a trip to New York in 1992, and I have to say that the City Lights cast loses nothing in the comparison. Timothy Hull's Jonathan comes off as much less pretentious and more earnest--and thus harder to write off. Linda Jones' Patricia possesses much more of a girl-next-door charm (and a silent, bemused smile that could have been stolen from Helen Hunt) and Peter Schmuckal's Nick is certainly more gloriously, artfully abrasive. The production is full of fine little touches, notably Adrian Stapleton's deftly fragmented cottage interior and silhouetted drill-team scene changes conducted to a driving Coltrane soundtrack. The unspeaking star is art itself, and in tackling a subject of such forbidding size, Margulies smoothly evades dreamy philosophizing, stirring up the chronology just to keep us nicely unsettled and leaving no stone unthrown. If you love art, hate art or just enjoy a good argument, it's certainly a sight worth seeing.

Sight Unseen plays Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through March 27 at City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $12-$15. (408/295-4200).

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From the March 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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