The writing really is on the wall.
In the engaging and nuanced production of Sight Unseen running at Everyman Theatre through Oct. 7, the signature of Jonathan Waxman -- reproduced again and again -- surrounds the characters. That wide, aggressive loop on the capital "J," the confident swoop of the final "n" -- it covers the walls of Jonathan's art gallery in London, and of a British farmhouse near the North Sea.
That signature is worth millions. It belongs to a painter so famous that his canvases are bought for exorbitant prices before he has even had a chance to create them -- hence the title.
None of the three main characters in Donald Margulies' Obie Award-winning drama can get away from that signature: not Patricia, the painter's former lover and muse; not her husband, Nick, who, though an acclaimed archaeologist, can't compete with the other man's phenomenal success -- and not the artist himself.
The writing on the wall really is everywhere. And not a single one of them can see it.
While in England for a show at a London gallery, Jonathan (Paul Morella) pays a visit to his former flame. It becomes apparent that Patricia (Deborah Hazlett) has never fully come to terms with their youthful romance, and that her husband, Nick (Bob Rogerson) regards Jonathan with a mixture of competitiveness, hostility and suspicion.
The scenes in the farmhouse are interspersed with those in the gallery, where Jonathan is interviewed by a German art critic who questions the painter's connection to his Jewish roots, and about whether he has sacrificed his creativity to commercial success.
Sight Unseen is a relatively early work, a meditation on Margulies' central preoccupation -- what it means to be an artist and, in particular, a Jewish artist. But, for all its beguiling qualities, the play can seem a bit undigested, its philosophizing existing alongside the characters, instead of being integral to them.
There's a lot of pontificating -- some might even say, "navel-gazing." The scenes in the art gallery, in particular, can seem awfully static. One longs for even a brief car chase to liven things up.
Fortunately, the central trio of actors are so passionate, intelligent and well-matched, it is thrilling to watch them play off one another. It is like witnessing a three-way game of catch -- a graceful spin here; a stretching, rolling catch there; and finally an almost nonchalant toss, with a bit of added body English, just for fun.
Each of the trio has a bravura moment. Hazlett has made a specialty of portraying brittle, fragile women. At one point in the kitchen, being buffeted about by the two men, her voice rises in a crescendo and her fingers flash like knives.
Morella, for his part, wrests every drop of emotion from those problematic interview scenes. As Jonathan is being interrogated, Morella's shoulders tense, his face reddens, and the veins in his neck throb. This is no mere academic argument for Jonathan, but a matter of the most vital importance.
Rogerson endows the shy, inarticulate Nick with a surprising dignity. Late in the play, he begs his wife to relinquish a portrait painted by the young Jonathan, saying simply, "It's our future, love." Rogerson pours so much sincerity and unspoken anguish into those four words, it's clear that he's not just hoping for a financial windfall.
In fact, the only thing that Hazlett and Morella do less than superbly is to portray their characters as college students. There is an unfinished quality to young adults that is difficult for forty- somethings to convey. The slouchiness of youth is the physical manifestation of psyches not yet fully formed. Morella and Hazlett try to capture this tentativeness, but even their loosest gestures have crisp edges.
Of course, everything that eventually will go wrong between Jon and Patty is there at the beginning of their relationship -- the writing really is on the wall. As I watched the last scene, I had a flashback to the way the play had begun:
As the audience took its seats, the stage resembled an art gallery. The walls were hung with large canvases displaying naked, vaguely alienated figures.
Then, the lights dimmed. A dining table, a hutch and sink were wheeled onto the stage and positioned in front of the "gallery." Soon, all the audience saw was the farmhouse kitchen. The art gallery was nowhere in view.
But, that doesn't mean it wasn't there.