Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Off-Broadway Theatre Review: The Revisionist by Jesse Eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg transitions from The Social Network star to downtown writer with his latest play, The Revisionist

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Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg. Photo by Sandra Coudert.

Jesse Eisenberg — Mark Zuckerberg doppelgänger, Zombie killer — has written his second play (Ok, his third, if you count an unproduced musical, Me Time!, for which he wrote the music and lyrics). His last theatrical endeavor just over a year ago, Asuncion, was a wickedly funny, but alas, weakly premised, stereotyped bromance more suited to Judd Apatow, if more intellectual. So has the writer-actor made strides in the former part of the popular hyphenate?

Strides, no, but exploratory steps towards a more serious drama? Sure. With The Revisionist, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and presented at Cherry Lane Theatre, Eisenberg’s dropped the misguided liberalism and stereotypes in favor of a more well-worn plot and (relatively) gentler characters. He plays David, a writer just arrived in Poland hoping to cut short a crippling case of  writer’s block. He’s visiting his 75-year-old second cousin Maria who’s under the impression, well, that he’s doing just that: visiting her.

As is customary for any Eisenberg character, David’s extraordinarily self-involved: he’s much more interested in shutting himself up in his room and smoking pot than getting to know Maria, or finishing — excuse me, revising — that book of his. But as can also be expected, the actor’s signature nervous energy — those darting eyes, those fidgety limbs — serves him well. Even as you mentally recoil at David’s callousness, you can’t help but be drawn to Eisenberg-as-David; it’s more of a gasp-laugh of self-recognition in the oh-my-god-I-acted-that-way-towards-my-parents-when-I-was-16-so-can-he-really-be-that-bad-if-I’m-not kind of way. It’s a special trick of Eisenberg’s: He derides Maria for not understanding his utterly ludicrous children’s-book-as-allegory, and instead of wanting to smack him for his pretentiousness, we, like Maria, chuckle a bit and then let it go. We’re all a bit drunk off his manic bouncing from room to room, the torrent of uncensored  thoughts tumbling from his lips. Eisenberg may have a limited range as an actor, but hot damn, he does the geeky asshole with a hint of heart and a helluva lot of intensity very well.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s playing opposite one of the greatest stage actresses of our time. Lord knows why Vanessa Redgrave agreed to an Off-Broadway run in a 179-seat theatre, but according to her bio, she was “immensely excited by the script of The Revisionist, which she accepted as soon as she read the play” (made the more endearing by Eisenberg’s own bio: “He is extremely honored to be sharing the stage with Ms. Redgrave”). And let’s not complain because she is just fantastic. Her Maria has a winking, subtle sense of humor: she’s not clueless to David’s self-absorption, but cheerfully digs in further, riling him when she’s feeling impish and shrugging him off when his over-the-top moodiness isn’t worth the energy.

Redgrave shuffles through John McDermott’s homey but cramped apartment-set, contentedly answering the telephone each time it rings though she knows it’s always just a solicitor for the ‘fake’ blind, and benevolently hosting her taxi driver friend (the excellent and earthy Daniel Oreskes, speaking almost entirely in Polish) who she suffers to shave her legs — it reminds him of his mother, naturally — and indulges his pounding shot after shot of vodka. She speaks impeccably with a Polish accent, her fervent wish to engage with her once-distant relative is unimpeachably moving and she and Eisenberg maintain a palpable, playful chemistry throughout.

So when Eisenberg’s script takes an unfortunate Red Dog Howls turn of a Holocaust reveal — ok, so it’s not as bad as all that — you revel at Redgrave’s ability to beautifully underplay. Assisted by director Kip Fagan (who also directed Asuncion), the moment is a quietly realized one, not of gasping recognition, but of calm acceptance. David and Maria, in less than a week, have gradually developed from a relationship of dubiousness to one of genuine care, coming to a mutual understanding and forgiveness of each others’ failings — though perhaps not of their own.

At 100 intermissionless minutes, the show drags a bit in the last thirty, which is unfortunate, because it’s when the two are doing their best work. The plot points are contrived, to be sure, but the quick-witted dialogue and central relationship, played superbly, is undeniably watchable. Eisenberg continues to be one to watch, so while this isn’t — obviously — Obie or Pulitzer bait (though there is rumor of a Broadway run), it is 4,000 Miles for the caustic crowd. And some of us prefer that kind of company.

The Revisionist
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, NY 10014
Through April 27, 2013

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