Attractive Sight

SIGHT UNSEEN
By Donald Margulies
New Jewish Theatre

When the Rep produced Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen a few years ago, I thought Joneal Joplin's performance as the husband of the protagonist's old girlfriend was one of the best things I'd seen him do. A brooding, unpleasant man, the character was unlike the usual Joplin role, which made the depth of his playing all the more striking. In a similar way, Bob Atchisson's performance in the same role in the New Jewish Theatre's production of Sight Unseen is the best work I've seen him do. Without crossing the line into overt aggression, Atchisson carefully shows both the man's wariness about the intruder from his wife's past and his determination to protect what's his.

Atchisson's is just one of four fine performances in the ensemble that director Tom Murray has created for this production. With her usual skill, Lavonne Byers deftly draws her character, a German journalist whose questions about Jewish elements in his work may or may not be intended to get a rise out of the successful painter she's interviewing.

At the center of the play stands the unfinished business between that painter and the woman he'd rejected 15 years earlier after an intense two-year affair when they were students. Jan Hutchison moves with a sweet awkwardness that is just right for the woman. She carefully modulates her emotions from guarded to full-blown. When the play takes us back to their student days, her eager, open, youthful charm contrasts heartbreakingly with the deliberately restricted life she's made for herself.

Mitch Herzog wisely underplays the uncertainties that drive the artist, now rich and famous, to try to get in touch again with the inspiration he had when he was young. He, too, sets up an effective contrast with his student self. Herzog handles well a couple of long, literary speeches the playwright deals him. He's less successful in giving full value to the roiling emotions that make him drive his love away.

MT Schmidt evokes a humble kitchen with a few well-chosen strokes in her basic set. But I wish she'd found a quicker, quieter way to make the play's several scene changes.

As they explore issues of art and identity, both script and performance of Sight Unseen make absorbing theater.

-- Bob Wilcox

GERTRUDE AND ALICE: A LIKENESS TO LOVING
By Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapman
Washington University Creative Writing Program and Edison Theatre

Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving (hereafter G&A), a dramatic work-in-progress concerning the love and work of Gertrude Stein, had its premiere last Thursday and Friday evening at Edison Theatre as part of a symposium titled "Gertrude Stein @ THE MILLENNIUM." GIVING A PREMIERE OF A WORK-IN-PROGRESS STRIKES ME AS RATHER BRAZEN, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE PROGRESS MOST NEEDED INVOLVES THE PERFORMANCE, NOT THE TEXT. G&A WAS PRESENTED WITHOUT INTERMISSION, FINE FOR THE STRETCH OF AN HOUR OR SO, BUT NOT FOR ALMOST 90 MINUTES, PARTICULARLY WHEN MANY OF THOSE MINUTES WERE GENERATED BY ONE OF THE TWO ACTORS, LOLA PASHALINSKI (PLAYING STEIN), WHO DIDN'T HAVE HER LINES DOWN AND THEREFORE SPOKE WITH THE HESITATION OF CONSCIOUS RECOLLECTION. SHE ALSO FLUFFED A DOZEN TIMES, EVEN APPEALING TO A PROMPTER TWICE. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE EVEN IN AMATEUR AND STUDENT PERFORMANCES. PASHALINSKI AND HER COLLEAGUE, LINDA CHAPMAN, ARE PROFESSIONALS.

BUT THE LINES, WHICH SEEMED TO HAVE BEEN DRAWN FROM THE WRITING OF STEIN AND TOKLAS, ARE HARD TO SAY. GERTRUDE STEIN WAS COMMITTED TO EXPERIMENTAL LITERATURE, WHICH MEANS USING THE LANGUAGE EXPERIMENTALLY AS WELL. I WOULD IMAGINE THAT MEMORIZING SUCH WRITING IS DIFFICULT BECAUSE THE SYNTACTIC RULES OF MORE ORDINARY LANGUAGE ARE NOT MUCH HELP. FURTHER, THE MATERIAL CHOSEN, BESIDES HAVING A RATHER MINIMALIST REPETITIVENESS, HAD LITTLE INTRINSIC DRAMA. MOST ARTISTS, ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO WORKED AS HARD AS STEIN IS REPRESENTED AS DOING, DON'T HAVE TIME FOR TERRIBLY EXCITING EXTERIOR LIVES, WHICH GET IN THE WAY OF THE WORK.

SO PASHALINSKI AND CHAPMAN CONCENTRATE ON THE DRAMA, SUCH AS IT WAS, OF WHAT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN A RATHER SOCIALLY OLD-FASHIONED, ROLE-BOUND RELATIONSHIP. STEIN CALLED HERSELF "HE" AND "THE HUSBAND"; TOKLAS WAS "SHE" OR "THE WIFE" OR EVEN "THE GIRL." ONE MIGHT HAVE EXPECTED SOMEONE WHO WISHED TO FORWARD THE EVOLUTION OF LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE TO BE A BIT MORE PROGRESSIVE IN SEXUAL ATTITUDES, BUT, AT LEAST AS G&A HAS IT, STEIN WAS NOT. DOES IT MATTER THAT SYNTAX IS EXTRAORDINARY IF THE NARRATIVE IS RADCLYFFE HALL? NOT TO ME.

PASHALINSKI AND CHAPMAN ARE WINNING PERFORMERS -- THE FORMER WITH A FACE OF GREAT CHARACTER AND CHARM, THE LATTER GLORIOUSLY ANGULAR BUT WILLOWY. HAD THEY CHOSEN TO DRAMATIZE IN ORDINARY LANGUAGE STEIN AND TOKLAS' SOCIAL LIFE IN PARIS AND WHAT IS KNOWN OF THEIR PERSONAL INTERACTIONS, THEY MIGHT HAVE FIELDED A CUTE BUT SCARCELY DEEP EVENING OF THEATER. THEY CHOSE THE ARTSY ROUTE, HOWEVER, AND OCCASIONALLY BETRAYED THEIR OWN HIGH-MINDEDNESS BY CHEAP SHOTS -- SAYING "HEMINGWAY," FOR INSTANCE, IN A WAY TO DRAW A CONTEMPTUOUS LAUGH FROM THE AUDIENCE. HEMINGWAY, WHATEVER HIS FAULTS, WAS A FAR BETTER WRITER THAN STEIN AND HAD, ALAS, A MORE INTERESTING, GENUINELY TRAGIC LIFE BESIDES.

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