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NEW YORK – Actors-turned-playwrights are proliferating this theater season, and two prominent Off Broadway debuts — Zach Braff’s All Good People and Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here — have provided no compelling reason to celebrate the trend. But while those plays displayed too little skill, maturity or emotional authenticity to justify the production resources lavished upon them, Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion shows promise.
As a screen actor, Eisenberg has specialized in characters whose restless intelligence plays against their social awkwardness in films like Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale and, most notably, The Social Network, which earned him an Oscar nomination.
On the surface, those same qualities apply to Edgar, his role in Asuncion. Eisenberg appears to have written himself a vulnerable dweeb — all hyper-verbal nervous energy and amusing eagerness to please. But far less tender currents of masochism, insecurity and ignorance inform this neurotic character.
A wannabe journalist who rails against American imperialism, Edgar is the epitome of patronizing political correctness, even apologizing for the African Americans who mugged him. “I would punch me too,” he says, speculating about the oppression that drove them to put a gash in his skull. “I’m like a walking white idiot or something.”
Edgar sleeps on a beanbag on the floor of the messy off-campus apartment of his former college teacher’s assistant, Vinny (Justin Bartha), in Binghamton, NY. A cooler-than-thou neo-beatnik with a Masters in Black Studies and a permanent joint in his hand, Vinny’s condescension toward fawning Edgar initially appears tinged with affection. But as the play progresses, the festering unhealthiness of their codependent relationship is exposed with a cruelty perhaps influenced by early Pinter.
The element that destabilizes their fragile balance is Asuncion (Camille Mana), a young Filipina woman recently married to Edgar’s older brother Stuart (Remy Auberjonois), a Wall Street trader. Stuart’s reasons for planting Asuncion in Vinny’s apartment for a few days don’t stand up to dramatic scrutiny. But she serves to expose the shallowness of Edgar’s supposed sensitivity through the wild assumptions he makes about her based on cultural stereotypes.
The self-deluding sanctimoniousness of the P.C. crusaders has been a frequent target for comedy, and Eisenberg takes a fresh, often very funny bite out of the subject before the action takes a predictably nasty turn. The slender play lacks focus and doesn’t add up to an awful lot. But Eisenberg has a knack for presenting his characters in a certain light and then revealing other shades, both good and bad, which keeps things intriguing.
Having visited Cambodia, Edgar makes the sweeping claim of a special affinity for people from Asuncion’s part of the world. So it’s crushing for him to acknowledge his own cluelessness. Despite his academic pursuits and hipster liberalism, Vinny is a supercilious user with barely a shred of altruism, but his predatory behavior toward Asuncion is less offensive than Edgar’s.
In his presumptuous naiveté, Edgar can only conceive of beautiful Asuncion being with his brother as part of a transaction. But what’s lovely about the character (and Mana’s appealing performance) is how sweet and uncomplicated she is. She might know more about Mariah Carey than Pol Pot, but the play acknowledges her simplistic view of the world without turning her into a dumb joke. She sees America as “a pop song nation,” the catchy three-minute distillation of the best of global culture. And while Stuart might be brusque, as a character he’s a refreshing anomaly these days — a trader who appears to be a somewhat decent guy.
Director Kip Fagan drives the action along at a sustained clip on John McDermott’s grungy set, which evokes every squalid student apartment of our youth. He elicits incisive performances from all four cast members, particularly Eisenberg and Bartha, whose smug contemptuousness here shows an unfamiliar side to the actor.
There’s insufficient sense of Edgar having learned from the experience to make the play fully satisfying, but the somber concluding stretch has poignancy. Eisenberg shows a flair for dialogue and structure, plus a spiky comic perspective and a willingness to get ugly, all of which would make it a good thing if he continues to explore playwriting.
Venue: Cherry Lane Theatre, New York (runs through Nov. 27)
Cast: Remy Auberjonois, Justin Bartha, Jesse Eisenberg, Camille Mana
Playwrights: Jesse Eisenberg
Director: Kip Fagan
Set designer: John McDermott
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, by special arrangement with the Cherry Lane Theatre
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