Over Patricia's vigorous objections, Nick, the husband, decides that Jonathan can cart off the portrait if he buys it back for an obscenely large ransom, thus killing two birds by getting rid of both Pat's old squeeze and the picture, which his wife constantly moons over as a memento of her lost love.
Such is the frayed thread that more or less holds together the Donald Margulies play "Sight Unseen," a production of the Philadelphia Theater Co. that this week opened its season at Plays and Players.
"Sight Unseen" has a few winning moments, but its writer obviously sensed trouble, for he literally turned his play upside down. The first of the eight scenes, chronologically, is the one that ends the play. The final scene immediately precedes it and Margulies shuffled the rest like a card player with the palsy.
One can guess why. Only two scenes offer any real dramatic vibrance, and they have been placed in the critical slots - the second earliest, chronologically, at the end of Act 1, and the earliest at play's end. Had Margulies left things in their natural consecutive order, the play would be top-heavy, with little of interest left in Act 2 except the whooshing of escaping air as the whole thing deflated.
It happens that the stuff of Jonathan's personal history is more engaging than the incident centered in the farmhouse.
In the earliest (final) scene, this sheltered young man from a Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish household is blatantly seduced by the long-tressed young Gentile woman - Patricia - whom he has engaged as a model, and right in the studio where he has been painting the portrait in question.
Two years later, just returned from his mother's funeral, Patricia interrupts Jonathan in his grief/guilt and paws him amorously without regard to the circumstances. He shouts her out of the house, and she vanishes from his life for 15 years.
The most interesting scene of the play, and one having no direct bearing on anything else, is Jonathan's pre-retrospective interview by a zaftig German art critic who runs an obstacle course over the maddeningly irrational landscape of the modern art establishment and winds up baiting Jonathan's Jewishness. Margulies has inexplicably split the scene into two installments, one in each act.
"Sight Unseen" bowed at the Manhattan Theater Club early last year and got itself an Obie for best off-Broadway play - another good example of the questionable taste endemic to the New York theater community.
My old grandma cautioned me to always say a nice word about something at a time like this, and my nice word concerns the Paul Wonsek setting, which seamlessly compresses a Norfolk farmhouse, a London art gallery, a Brooklyn bedroom and an artist's studio into a single attractive set.
Area premiere of a play by Donald Margulies, presented by the Philadelphia Theater Co. and directed by Richard Corley. Set design by Paul Wonsek, lighting design by Donald Holder, costume design by Janus Stefanowicz, sound design by Conny Lockwood, stage manager Linda Barnes.
Jonathan Waxman - David Chandler
Nick - Paul O'Brien
Patricia - Corrina May
Grete - Nina Hodoruk
Playing at: Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St., through Oct. 24. Tickets: $18-$26. Info: 735-0631.