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Asuncion

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Asuncion
Jesse Eisenberg and Camille Mana
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

The closest that Jesse Eisenberg's new comedy at the Cherry Lane Theatre, which is being presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, comes to actual depth is with its title. Asuncion is technically the name of one of its characters, true: a young woman from the Philippines whom no one knows as well as they think they should. But it's also the Spanish word for the event that saw Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, taken bodily into Heaven at the end of her life. Or, as we say in English, the Assumption. And assumptions, or at any rate one big one, are what this wisp of a play is all about.

Okay, so this is not a subtle work. But it's also not poorly conceived. Eisenberg, who's best known for playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg onscreen in The Social Network, has developed both a worthy premise and a satisfactory vehicle for himself. He plays Edgar, an aspiring journalist trapped in university life and perpetually living with his one-time T.A., Vinny (Justin Bartha), in Vinny's cramped campus apartment. Edgar's restless routine is interrupted when his older brother, Stuart (Remy Auberjonois), arrives and asks Edgar and Vinny to put up his new wife, Asuncion (Camille Mana), for the weekend while he conducts some business out of town.

Vinny agrees to what he sees as a perfectly reasonable request. But Edgar is troubled by Stuart's reluctance to share, well, any details about his new spouse, as well as her unusually guarded nature. This leads him to the only logical conclusion: that she's a former sex slave who was shipped out of her country as a mail-order bride and is now being exploited in cruel, capitalist America too. And as Stuart's absence stretches from a couple of days to a week, the tension between Edgar and his poor, oppressed sister-in-law becomes almost too much for the concerned young man to bear.

Asuncion
Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

What unfolds thereafter is mostly irrelevant, and hardly surprising in any event — this setup can only go so many places, and it becomes clear early on that Eisenberg is choosing the least adventurous of the available options. This results in barely enough bulk for a substantive one-act, so Act II can't help but teeter and topple right out of the gate. Eisenberg uses it for upending Vinny's tacit tolerance of Edgar's eccentricities and instantly making him an outwardly impatient jerk, a whiplash-inducing transformation. Later he sends everyone but Stuart on an extended acid trip in which they spill all their secrets and reveal all their prejudices. Aside from being a dust-caked playwriting technique, it adds so little that it feels like filler added expressly for inflating the show's running time to one hour and 40 minutes, easily at least 30 minutes too long.

Director Kip Fagan does everything he can to elevate the script, but he has almost no luck squeezing juice from what's little more than a Three's Company–like collection of exits, entrances, and unnecessary misunderstandings. Eisenberg is predictably good as Edgar, marshaling his good-natured naïveté to considerable effect as a surface-skimming observer of human nature, and Bartha brings just the right air of fractured superiority to what could be a wobbly buddy part. Mana and Auberjonois hit their marks but are a bit stiff and empty in their roles, though these are understandable qualities given how little time Eisenberg spent fleshing out their characters. (Of course, if he did that, the story could be told in 10 minutes.)

The only interesting thing about this show as a piece of writing is Edgar's background. A stereotypically accepting college student, he makes a grand show of empathizing with others despite being intensely driven by his own narrow preconceptions. He's constructed his entire personality around an accidental trip he made to Cambodia a couple of years earlier, and believes that this entitles him to an "informed" opinion on everyone else's situation regardless of where the truth lies. The play's heartiest laughs come from Edgar's attempts to coax details from Asuncion about her life for an article he plans to write, with him begging her to offer withering commentary on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

That she's from the Philippines is immaterial. Cambodia is his sole frame of reference, and that makes him better than her; Vinny, on the other hand, is a Black Studies graduate who never flaunts his more robust knowledge of African tribes and customs. Is there a statement here about well-off liberals' myopia in the face of real or imagined suffering, and their belief that they can remedy even problems that don't need solving? Perhaps. But if Asuncion teaches anything, it's that it's seldom wise to assume there's more to any situation when all the evidence points to there being less. Applied to Eisenberg's play, that means you get a moderately satisfying comedic appetizer, but nothing that sticks to your ribs.


Asuncion
Through November 27
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix