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NEW YORK – Watching a magnificent stage animal like Vanessa Redgrave burrow deep into a complex new role in an intimate Off Broadway space seating fewer than 200 is a rare luxury for theater lovers. So a debt of gratitude is due Jesse Eisenberg, her co-star and also the burgeoning playwright behind The Revisionist, for bestowing that gift.
Their two characters are imperfectly balanced, making the play’s chamber music less harmonious than it perhaps might have been. But this is nonetheless a rewarding account of cultural collision that yields unexpected reflections on the centrality of family in our lives – whether we idealize them or take them for granted.
The production marks the second work by Eisenberg to be produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It’s a tighter, more dramatically robust piece than the promising but insubstantial Asuncion, which was also directed by Kip Fagan.
Redgrave plays Maria, a Holocaust survivor in her mid-seventies, still living in her native Poland in a modest apartment rendered in scrupulously drab detail by designer John McDermott. She receives a welcome break from the solitude of watching CNN and talking to telemarketers when her young second cousin, David (Eisenberg), visits from the U.S.
A writer stuck on a troublesome draft of his sci-fi novel, David is counting on the change of environment to unblock his creative energy. But Maria is starved for company, as well as for news of her relatives in America, most of whom she has never met. David’s ambivalent relationship with his folks back home, plus his desire to be left alone, makes for an awkward cohabitation with Maria.
That situation creates some amusing interplay in the early scenes. Maria fusses over meals, amenities and tour plans while David impolitely resists her attempts at communication, retreating to his room to sneak a quick hit on his hash pipe whenever possible. But the streak of self-loathing – perhaps even guilt – with which Eisenberg infuses the writing and his performance makes David’s condescending rudeness toward his host hard to take.
As a playwright, Eisenberg’s intentions seem clear. He takes a critical swipe at himself, and by extension, his entitled generation. David whines about the world’s unfairness while showing little sensitivity to the unfathomable hardships endured by others, and no appreciation for the support network of his own family. But Eisenberg pushes David’s abrasive self-absorption too far, reducing him to a kind of Gen Y Woody Allen in his neurotic twitchiness. It’s not essential that we like the character, but we need at least to be invested in his arc.
Luckily, Redgrave brings such humanity to Maria that she tempers David’s brittle edges. When she starts to bristle at his behavior the play acquires interesting new shades. Her dismissive assessment of his first book – an anti-fascist allegorical novel for young adult readers – pierces his smug armor, as does her insistence on displaying a framed copy of the book’s negative New York Times review. However, when David actually lets down his guard and shows some vulnerability, Maria reaches across to gently wipe the hair from his forehead, a gesture that’s heartbreaking in its warmth and simplicity.
The play could easily have drifted into noble sentimentality as Maria opens up about the horrors of her childhood and reveals a secret that completely shifts David’s perspective. But while he fumbles the ending, Eisenberg’s writing admirably avoids emotional manipulation.
Enhancing the play’s observations on the notion of family is a third character, a vodka-swilling taxi driver (Dan Oreskes) whose relationship with Maria has aspects of mother-son surrogacy. But the dramatic core is the modulations of the relationship between the two culturally remote principal characters. Orphaned as a child, Maria is unable to comprehend how anyone could have a family and yet place no value on that blessing. The most affecting moments in Eisenberg’s performance are when David’s awareness of that fundamental difference between them manifests itself in a hint of shame. He’s a product of a more selfish, coddled society and he knows it.
Fagan directs the play with a keen sense of the inherent humor and friction in its dynamic of polar opposites in close quarters, as well as their sad longing for mutual understanding.
The indisputable main asset of both writer and director, however, is Redgrave. Still rangy and agile, her movements have a natural grace and strength that makes her mesmerizing to watch up close. Adopting a heavy accent and speaking in rudimentary English, she disappears entirely into Maria, embracing the woman’s irritating meddlesome side as much as her dithery sweetness. Stage acting doesn’t get much better.
Venue: Cherry Lane Theatre, New York (runs through April 27)
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Jesse Eisenberg, Dan Oreskes
Director: Kip Fagan
Playwright: Jesse Eisenberg
Set designer: John McDermott
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Bart Fassbender
Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, by special arrangement with the Cherry Lane Theatre
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