Is Jesse Eisenberg not just a movie star (“The Social Network”) but his generation’s Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or Alfred Uhry or Wallace Shawn? That is what Vanessa Redgrave implies in her bio in the program for “The Revisionist,” the second play by Eisenberg produced by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the Cherry Lane. After listing her association with all those playwrights, Redgrave writes: “Vanessa is immensely excited by the script The Revisionist, which she accepted as soon as she read the play.”
“The Revisionist” certainly shows Eisenberg’s promise as a playwright. It is an intriguing three-character play with touches of sly humor and moments of pathos — better than his first effort, “Assuncion,” but also more difficult to talk about, because its power comes in some measure from a revelation near the end that would be unfair to disclose.
Eisenberg plays David, a young writer who had early success with a young adult novel, but is now struggling to revise his latest book, a work of science fiction. Other writers he knows have gone to writer colonies to free themselves of the every-day distractions, but he hasn’t gotten into one, so he travels to Poland to visit a distant relative, Maria (Redgrave) for the first time.
Maria is thrilled by the visit. She rarely sees her American relatives. Only one has ever visited, and only for a few hours on the way to somewhere else, in the decades since the war. David plans to stay a week. She wants him to stay longer –“forever….To have blood back in house: This is good thing David,” she says in her imperfect English.
It becomes clear quickly that David is nowhere near as thrilled. She bought him a notebook to write in; he prefers his laptop. She arranges to take him on a tour of her town, Szczecin, with her friend, a cabdriver named Zenon (Daniel Oreskes); David tells her to cancel: He just wants to stay in his room – ostensibly to focus on his writing, but he actually spends more time smoking the marijuana he brought with him. She cooks him a chicken dinner; he says he’s a vegetarian. So she creates a tofu dish and even agrees to eat it with him.
The problem is not just a clash of cultures and difficulties in communicating (differences that Eisenberg mines for humor). The problem is David’s personality; he is impolite, patronizing and self-involved. Maria knows far more about David’s immediate family than David does – rattling off the names of cousins and cousins’ children that David doesn’t even know, and obviously doesn’t care about. Their photographs line the walls of Maria’s apartment. David turns the pictures to face the wall because he finds them a distraction from his writing/pot-smoking.
Since Eisenberg has said he was inspired to write this play by his own real-life visit to a relative in Poland, it takes courage to make his character so insufferable. A more experienced playwright might have been kinder, more temperate, but it is a testament to Eisenberg’s skills that we don’t hate David. His callowness is often made amusing.
At one point, in a bit of humblebrag, David says of his earliest writing: “I can acknowledge the book’s strengths, but I don’t like it.”
“Yes, I think me too,” Maria replies.
“Excuse me?” David says, stunned.
“I read it again before you came here.”
“And you decided you don’t like it.”
“You want the truth?”
“No, not really.”
But as the play progresses, unexpected truths emerge, as Maria opens up about her suffering during the war.
It is exciting to see both Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg on such an intimate stage as the Cherry Lane, even though too much of the 100-minute intermission-less play feels like filler, Eisenberg rushes through his lines with an elocution that works better on film, and Redgrave is burdened with both a heavy Polish accent and more than a few lines of dialogue in Polish; Oreskes speaks entirely in Polish. Such authenticity is more appealing in John McDermott’s cramped, believably lived-in set.
Jesse Eisenberg may not be on the road to a playwriting career like Tennessee Williams’ or Arthur Miller’s. Perhaps instead, he’ll be one of those with simultaneous careers as movie actor and playwright. A group that includes Noel Coward and Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard is a mighty fine list to be on.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production at Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street
By Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Kip Fagan
Set design by John McDermott, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Matt Frey, sound design by Bart Fasbender
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dan Oreskes, Vanessa Redgrave
The Revisionist is scheduled to run through March 31, 2013.
Update: The Revisionist has been extended through April 21, 2013