All through Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion (Cherry Lane Theatre), I kept hearing in my head the TV producer in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, trying to convince her art-historian gal pal to write a treatment for a sitcom. “Just tell us who these women are,” she prompts the puzzled academic, “and why they’re funny.” Eisenberg probably meant Asuncion to tell us more than that, but he didn’t even get step one right. Given the flimsy identities and even flimsier relationships of his four characters, the result can barely sustain its 100 wafer-thin minutes, which include an intermission.
Two funny white guys share a small college-town apartment. Vinny (Justin Bartha), the tall good-looking one, has a hipster attitude and an oh-so-hip profession—teaching African studies, if you please. Edgar (Eisenberg), the little nerdy one, apparently has no job, no activities, no friends. And no wonder: Weighed down by enough white-liberal guilt to sink a dozen Titanics, he practices his alleged calling, journalism, by spouting floods of pseudo-p.c. drivel at every opportunity, each effusion bringing the minimal action to a dead halt.
Why Vinny tolerates Edgar we never learn, any more than whether Edgar pays any rent or where he sleeps (unless the beanbag chair downstage center is his bedroom). Little, in fact, is ever explained. At the show’s top, Edgar enters having just been mugged by street kids, who took his cash but not his bike. He says they slammed him into a concrete pillar, leaving him unconscious, but neither he nor Vinny mentions concussion or suggests a visit to the ER.
The tenuous plot is even more far-fetched. Edgar’s older brother, Stuart (Remy Auberjonois), a wealthy stockbroker who apparently despises his sib and distrusts Vinny, inexplicably chooses their flat as the place in which to stash his brand-new Filipina bride, Asuncion (Camille Mana), for several days, for sinister unexplained reasons. Why? Edgar jumps instantly to potential worst-case conclusions about sex slaves and purchased brides, unswayed by Asuncion’s wide-eyed straightforwardness (redoubled in Mana’s graceful, open-hearted performance).
Vinny, in contrast, instantly bonds with her, making another worst-case scenario spring up in Edgar’s overwrought brain. Naturally the ornate misunderstandings receive instant clarification at the end, with everybody deciding that Edgar’s a jerk. The audience is way ahead of them on that one. Bartha’s sexy panache, like Mana’s sweetness, can’t rescue Eisenberg’s clueless, disconnected writing, and his own fast-talking wallow in neurasthenia only makes the damp occasion soggier.