Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre Review: Asuncion

Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg makes his playwriting debut

Jesse Eisenberg is all geeky, nervous energy. Inexplicably unable to maintain eye contact, his gaze darts constantly, words tumbling out of his mouth in an uncensored torrent as he hunches over ever-so-slightly, as if desperately trying to disappear within himself. The only cure for his fidgety fingers is to forcefully shove them under his armpits as he crosses and uncrosses his arms in an attempt to shield himself from any kind of human contact.

As an actor, he’s a delight to watch — bounding across the stage with curls a’bouncin’, splaying his slender frame across a beanbag — even if his range seems narrowly defined (Zuckerberg’s strategic aloofness, Baumbach’s cold pretension). As a playwright… well, let’s just say he’s got potential.

Asuncion isn’t exactly his first play, but it is the only one that’s been produced (what I wouldn’t give to see his musical, Me Time!, for which he wrote the music and lyrics. Jack of all trades, this one). And it’s certainly not original in its premise: Edgar, an unemployed wannabe journalist who mooches off his ex-TA, Vinny — a (white) Black Studies PhD candidate — becomes absurdly suspicious of his brother’s marriage to a Filipina woman named Asuncion.

Eisenberg plays Edgar — he stands in for his own stand in? — who, from his seeming position of privilege, comically projects his white guilt liberalism all over the sunnily naive Asuncion, who he interrogates about about post-Vietnam Cambodia (she’s Filipina, remember?), all the while insisting his brother purchased her in the sex slave trade  — or at the very least as a mail-order bride. Why else would an “untraveled” white Wall Street-er marry a “poor” “Latina”? (There are just so many quotes going on here.) Despite Edgar’s inherent obnoxiousness, Eisenberg imbues him with a likable earnestness — to “protect” his country, to  bring Vinny lunch every day even if it means getting mugged by the young hooligans in the neighborhood, to be fun (he so desperately longs to be fun).

Justin Bartha and Jesse Eisenberg in Asuncion.               Photo: Sandra Coudert.

While you may be rolling your eyes by now at the slim, stereotype-driven plot (which only implodes rather ingloriously in the second act), don’t worry — it’s not all that bad. The self-deprecating Eisenberg has a knack for the funny — there are moments of sharp, satirical insight, and the banter between Edgar and Vinny is quick-witted and creates a subtle, at times disturbing, spin on the overly popular bromance (view a few scenes of the play here). It certainly helps that Vinny is played by Hangover star Justin Bartha (who recently starred in Zach Braff’s painfully unfunny attempt at playwriting): unironically sporting Black Power tees and Afrocentric beads (hilariously spot-on costuming by Jessica Pabst), Bartha’s pothead Vinny soulfully drums his bongo, finds a way to drop Malcom X or MLK Jr. quote into any conversation and strikes up a charming rapport with Camille Mana’s Asuncion (which, of course, Edgar is exceedingly jealous of). He’s pompous, ludicrous and disarmingly likable — he’s also the more darkly complex character, carefully exposing shocking moments of liberal racism.

Not a whole lot happens in the weakly premised Asuncion, but it’s still largely enjoyable as directed at a fast and funny clip by Kip Fagan. Eisenberg’s ability to craft damningly humorous dialogue and complex relationships demonstrates his potential as a dramatist and showcases his already proven talent as an actor.

Now let’s see that musical.

Asuncion by Jesse Eisenberg
Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 
at Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce Street, New York, NY  10014
through December 18, 2011

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2011 by in Comedy, Emerging Playwright, Off-Broadway, Reviews, Theatre, Theatre Reviews.

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