Jewish Artist Burdened By Success and Shiksas

There are two compelling performances in the revival of David Margulies’ highly regarded Sight Unseen at the Biltmore Theatre, and I would see it for the terrific contributions of Laura Linney and Byron Jennings alone. But is Mr. Margulies’ 1992 play about a wunderkind New York painter and the price of success as great as some have claimed?

Heady comparisons have been made between Sight Unseen and Death of a Salesman (and-because, I guess, the artist-hero is a guilty Jew-the novels of Philip Roth). But those are wild claims. My problem-if it is mine-is that I don’t feel a thing for its superficial, empty hero, the artist Jonathan Waxman, who’s in search of his lost innocence and promise.

Where others see a tortured or subtly fascinating man, I’m afraid I see someone who’s only shallow and presumptuous. It is Mr. Margulies’ purpose, I assume, to show us the kind of facile success story that’s typical of the 80′s arts scene, and Waxman-a man of wax-is smug enough to convince us at least that an artist’s talent has little or nothing to do with his personality. But what of the rocky emotional landscape of the play?

Look at what essentially takes place as the action moves forward and backward in time (a trick in itself that’s meant to intrigue us. But there’s no reason why the narrative shouldn’t be linear). Waxman, whose father has just died, goes to meet his former muse and lover, Patricia, who’s living in England. It’s the first time he’s seen her since cruelly jilting her 15 years ago. (She describes herself as his “sacrificial shiksa”.) The needy boy wonder, who’s a media darling, is in London for a big retrospective of his work. Patricia, in self-imposed exile from America and herself, lives in Norfolk in a sterile marriage to a bitter Englishman, Nick, an archaeologist. It’s soon clear that Patricia never got over her passionate, two-year affair with Waxman from the time they were both students.

It takes a Turgenev to explore the romantic obsession of first love, but Mr. Margulies allegorizes blatantly. Waxman’s nude painting of Patricia, painted when she first modeled for him, is portentously entitled The Beginning . It represents the lost purity and inspiration the successful Waxman wants to rekindle in himself, and it’s hanging ominously over the fireplace in Norfolk. Small wonder that Nick-the archaeologist digging for meaning in the debris of lost civilizations-seethes with dissatisfaction. Then there’s Waxman’s scandalously famous painting of a black man and a white woman nakedly fucking in a desecrated Jewish cemetery. Are they making love, or is it rape? It’s another allegory. “It’s all about what you make of it,” Waxman explains glibly.

But the discussions about art and Jewish identity during Waxman’s interview with a probing German reporter are just as glib. They’re as contrived as the implied anti-Semitism of the curiously threatening German. Waxman’s ideas-or Mr. Margulies’-fail to challenge us as a drama of significant ideas. It’s a safe play, though it appears to exist on the dangerous edge of life and art.

“Hell, some art lovers were in a hurry to get to the postcards and prints and souvenir placemats and skipped the show entirely!” Waxman announces with the air of revelation about the big Van Gogh exhibition at the Met. ” … The art was just a backdrop for the real show that was happening. In the gift shop!”

“Hm,” the interviewer responds, unimpressed.

Mr. Margulies thus has it both ways. If you find Waxman an empty vessel, you’re supposed to. If you find him a fascinating shit who’s worthy of our sympathy because he’s lost his way, that’s O.K., too. (It’s all about what you make of it.) But was this celebrated son of Brooklyn ever innocent in the first place? Does he have any integrity to rekindle?

Oh, to be sure, there’s the precious, climatic scene that goes back 15 years in time to show the start of his love affair with Patricia. But it’s a schematic, sentimental device. Everything we otherwise know about Waxman is self-serving and unpleasant-including the way he dumped his lovely “shiksa” after two years when his dominating, suburban, Jewish mom died. He’s now meeting up with his ex-lover again after his father dies ….

Which leaves an ultimate mystery (without which there wouldn’t be a play): Why does Patricia-the former boundless “student of the world”-abdicate from life, as if she’s in mourning for the memory of a phony like Waxman? It’s difficult to see what she saw in him in the first place.

That’s particularly true when she’s played with such authentic, blazing intelligence by Laura Linney. This utterly natural actress can convey a bruised, damaged life as well as a much younger, infatuated self when the future brimmed with magical possibility. Ms. Linney is so fine as Patricia that she almost convinces us that Waxman was worth it. But Ben Shenkman, a good actor in the wrong role, isn’t electric-or dangerous-enough as Waxman. The role needs far more vitality and subtext than Mr. Shenkman brings to it, though my feelings about the transparently spineless Waxman remained unchanged when I subsequently read the play.

The production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, came to the boil for me on English soil-in the drab, cold Norfolk cottage, where the excellent Byron Jennings as Nick spits out the bile of damp defeat. A typical Brit in his way, Nick announces admiringly, “Picasso-now there was an energetic little bloke.”

Nick is the kind of Englishman who knows best how to settle for second-best. “I take what I can get. I’m English,” he says in a memorable line about his dry marriage. He’s the envious, furious, middle-aged traditionalist resenting Waxman on every battlefront. “Oh, yes,” he seethes. “You shit on canvas and dazzle the rich. They ooh and aah and shower you with coins, lay gifts at your feet. The world has gone insane. It’s the emperor’s new clothes.”

Perhaps; but if you find yourself agreeing with the bilious Nick as much as I did, Mr. Margulies’ drama about art and the need for uncorrupted innocence has lost its way.

Absolutely British

Sight Unseen ‘s Nick gives us an insight into an English type doting on defeat. The three British girls of a certain age who are the comedy trio known as Fascinating Aïda are finishing their successful run at the new 59E59 Theaters on Sunday. They’re legendary in England, and they tell you all you need to know-all you may wish to know-about English womanhood.

They, firstly, do not give a toss (as the English like to say). Age holds no fears for them. They’re proudly politically incorrect, but not too cutting edge. They loathe President Bush, but really hate Prime Minister Blair-pronounced “Bleeah” , as if throwing up. They’re vulgar in the bawdy English way. They’re also likable . You could imagine yourself enjoying a drink or two with them after the show. The bruiser named Dillie might drink you under the table, or so I imagine.

As entertainers, they reveal-as English women often do-absolutely no dress sense. They pretend to be making it all up as they go along (English cult of the amateur). But of course they know exactly what they’re doing after 20 glorious years. They’re risqué, cozy, pubby, clever, highly verbal, Gilbert and Sullivan witty, Sondheim wistful, sometimes old-fashioned and mad.

I’m uncertain about their dated little ditties-on the joys of Viagra, pretentious modern art (cf. Sight Unseen! ) and hot flashes (“Is It Me, or Is It Hot in Here?”) Their stiff-upper-lip tribute to our Botox era is more my cup of tea. (“Our skin is stapled to our skulls with metal clips / And our legs look much improved / Since our knee-caps were removed / And recycled in our artificial hips …. “) So, too, their unusual “Song of Genetic Mutation,” with its touchingly romantic ballad sung to “that two-headed baby of mine.”

Pleasure in silliness-an English specialty, thank heavens-shines with their rousing anthem for troubled times, “Stick Your Head Between Your Legs and Kiss Your Ass Goodbye.” Act I was a bit shaky, but the highest moment of lunacy came in the superior second act with their tribute to New Zealand, “Suddenly New Zealand.”

When all seems lost in these difficult times-

Suddenly New Zealand doesn’t

seem so dreary,

Suddenly New Zealand seems to

suit us rather well;

Lots of hills and dales and hills

and dales

And hills and dales and hills and

dales

And hills and dales and hills and

dales

And hills and dales

And the occasional dell.

And lots of sheep and lambs, too, and lambs and sheep, and lots of plots and homesteads, and plots and homesteads, and springs and geysers, and a lot of hot mud, and nice farms.

When are we going?