Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Why there should ever be an empty seat at the KNOW Theater in Binghamton is beyond me. It doesn’t happen too often, but even one empty seat represents one fewer person whose life might be enriched by an amazing theatrical experience. One fewer ticket sold to help “keep the lights on,” as Artistic and Executive Director Tim Gleason would say. And one fewer voice to spread the word in the community that theater is alive and well at the KNOW.
So even in this busy time when all of the local theater companies are wrapping up their regular seasons, or getting ready for a summer of great performances, try not to miss Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies, running weekends at the KNOW through June 26.
Sight Unseen is an Obie-winning play in two acts with one 15-minute intermission. It’s not the particulars of the plot about an uber-successful American artist, Jonathan Waxman, that make it so compelling, but, like many of the plays presented at the KNOW, it’s the acting and the directing.
Nick DeLucia, a frequent performer at the KNOW, takes a turn here as director, and he does so with a delicate hand. There is nothing in your face about any of his actors’ performances, and there are moments so riveting that you can almost hear the water boil even before the tea kettle starts to whistle. That’s how clean this production is. Duncan Lyle is the stage manager, a tireless job.
Jonathan (Jeff Tagliaferro in his KNOW debut) is about to open an exhibit of his controversial paintings in England where Patricia (Amoreena Wade), his ex-lover and one-time artist’s model, now lives. She shares a drafty farmhouse with her husband, Nick (Gleason) … and her original Waxman portrait in oil.
Nick is a Brit who has little patience for American pop culture or the art world. In Norfolk, England, he and Patricia work together to dig up and catalog artifacts at an ancient archeological site. She accepts Jonathan’s out-of-the-blue request to spend a night with them on the eve of his London art opening.
Patricia hasn’t seen her ex since he dumped her, and while Nick has only seen one photo, he has heard stories about him. This awkward situation gives each of the actors a fairly broad canvas upon which to paint the scene. And paint it, they do. Wade’s Patricia is by turns anxious, proud, defiant, conflicted and moody, but always believable.
Gleason’s character speaks volumes with little more than a grunt. When his Nick does begin to articulate, he has some of the best lines, delivered in a way that would make Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess proud. Patricia and Jonathan dig up the bones and fragments of their former affair, much to Nick’s disdain. He doesn’t hide it well.
A fourth but very important character is Grete, a German journalist whose “English is perfect.” Grete has a knack for asking just the right, or wrong, question, depending on your point of view.
She knows Jonathan to be a brash painter of debate-provoking subjects, including some hot-button topics. She is relentless in her campaign to get a good quote from him by making an issue of his Jewish faith. You can see where that’s going.
Grete is played fiercely with a consistent German accent by the versatile Amy L. Smith. Her scenes with Tagliaferro are among the best in terms of Margulies’ rich, intellectual dialogue. But Smith brings something else to the mix with her close-cropped hairdo, severe expressions and sexy art-world getup (you just have to see it). I think she channelled Mike Myer’s “Dieter,” the German performance artist from SNL in the ’80s. “Shprockets!”
But again, neither DeLucia nor his actors turn the characters into caricatures. In their hands, this script would be as home off-Broadway as it is here in Binghamton, which is why it’s so important to support it and go.
Margulies’ excellent script is award-winning, and his characters are believable, although not always likable. To wit, Jonathan is more “hipster” than “bohemian,” which lends Nick’s criticisms of the artist as a mediocre fraud its “cred.” Patricia might elicit more sympathy for her grief over the loss of Jonathan’s affections, if she had a better opinion of herself. Letting an ex stay with you and your husband? Seriously?
The story is told in the present and in flashbacks, on a clever set designed by scenic artist Kat D’Andrea and constructed by Pat Morrissey. It includes a number of separate locations and time frames, lit separately when needed: a bedroom in New York, a cold kitchen in the English countryside, a studio in London where Jonathan and Grete conduct their professional mind games, an art class where the old lovers met in college.
In the bedroom on stage right, a folding bed uses the small space efficiently, depicting Jonathan’s childhood room where nothing, but everything, might happen. In a chilly kitchen in the center, tongue-tied Nick can avoid the others by messing with the wood stove.
At stage left, light and sound operator Joe Brofcak bounces a beam off a lucite name plate on the wall behind journalist Grete. This has the effect of projecting “Jonathan Waxman” in reverse on the avant-garde ocean-blue exit door of the studio. There’s something symbolic there.
There also is a clever use of positioning canvases to leave the heavy lifting of what the paintings might actually look like to the imagination.
The June 12 matinee performance of Sight Unseen did not fill all of the seats, but it should have, and you still have a chance to occupy one yourself before the show ends on the June 26.
IF YOU GO: The show continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through June 26 at the KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office. at 607-724-4341. You can find more information at KnowTheatre.org.