“Am I a terrible person?” David (Jesse Eisenberg) asks his Polish cousin Maria (Vanessa Redgrave). “I think I might have some anger directed inwardly. Am I terrible?” Maria wisely leaves his question unanswered. “It’s okay,” she says.
And it is. Better than okay, actually. Eisenberg made his playwriting debut at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater with 2011’s Asuncion, a strained, smarmy, and schematic farce about a naive college student (played by Eisenberg) who assumes that his recently arrived Filipina sister-in-law has fallen victim to sex trafficking. The Revisionist, Eisenberg’s new play, borrows Asuncion’s structure, in which an outsider enters, upsetting preconceived assumptions. But this time Eisenberg has cast himself as the outsider and has written a far more generous and nuanced script, layering the comedy with affecting drama.
Eisenberg plays David, a young writer who has missed the deadline for revisions on his second novel. Stymied in New York, rejected from several local writers’ retreats, and deflected by an insurgency in Kathmandu, he takes a plane to a small town in Poland to stay with Maria, an elderly cousin whom he has never met. While she envisions a lengthy stay and a burgeoning relationship, he craves a quiet place to charge his laptop. “I never wanted to die so much!” she exclaims on first beholding him. He just wants to put his bags down.
Redgrave is a birdlike woman with white hair haloing a face so radiantly youthful that only excellent genes and/or a Faustian pact can explain it. Though early rumors suggested some difficulties with her lines, she gives a poised and sensitive performance. Even in Maria’s more flighty or exasperated moments, Redgrave can’t help exuding grace. That serenity elegantly contrasts with Eisenberg’s Adderall-inflected style, which tends toward the fidgety, the squirmy, and the perpetually ill at ease. Daniel Oreskes joins them in a small role as Zenon, Maria’s taxi-driver friend, in a pleasing turn that moderates much of his usual bluff and bluster.
Yes, David is precisely the sort of awkward, unctuous child-man that has defined Eisenberg’s film career. He pushes self-involvement to the point of absurdity and seems genuinely surprised that other people might have conflicting needs and desires. He arrives without a gift and sulks through every interaction with Maria, preferring to hole up in the bedroom, slugging Gatorade, smoking pot, and huddling in his hoodie. Is he a terrible person? No question.
But unlike Asuncion, which served only to prove the immaturity of Eisenberg’s character, this play is as much Maria’s as David’s. While Eisenberg likely didn’t need to invoke the Holocaust to counterpoise the flimsiness of David’s problems and complaints, he offers Maria a haunting, unindulgent narrative and a late revelation that comes as a genuine surprise. With the help of director Kip Fagan, Eisenberg also supplies some nicely comic scenes—one in which the unlikely pair attempt a meal of straight vodka and raw tofu, another in which they conspire to teach Zenon American profanities.
But if all this won’t tempt you to see the play, then know that Redgrave’s Maria tells perhaps the world’s worst Polish joke, which involves a songbird, a hawk, and much bovine excrement. “Is better to sit in cow remains,” says Maria, in lieu of a punch line. Really, it’s much better to sit at the Cherry Lane and enjoy her luminous performance.