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The Revisionist

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

In case you've forgotten about the physics-defying ability great stars have for imposing weight on the weightless, Jesse Eisenberg's new play at the Cherry Lane Theatre, The Revisionist, provides a once-in-a-lifetime object lesson. For this production of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater director Kip Fagan has scored an impressive coup in securing a performer who's not just an unparalleled talent, but also a legitimate living legend: Vanessa Redgrave. What she does with her role brings real respectability to what is otherwise a forgettable and arid comedy.

As Maria, a 70-something woman living in Szczecin, Poland, Redgrave gets to let loose a seemingly endless stream of comedic bravura, beneath which runs a vein of emotional agony that, naturally, will be mined for all it's worth by evening's end. When we first see her, rooted to her couch watching CNN International, she appears to be solitary, even lonely—in any event removed from the outside world. But a different nature emerges when her American second cousin, David (Eisenberg), arrives, and she's able to become a concerned homebody who wants nothing more than to make his stay as comfortable and pleasant as possible.

In pursuing that transformation, Redgrave articulates even the most minute details and all they imply. Take, for example, her loving outrage when he rejects the chicken she's cooked (because he's a vegetarian)—adroitly setting the baseline for a true explosion later, when her genuine affection has been violated into abject hopelessness. Or, sticking with food (one of the surest anchors of Maria's life): the delicate way she holds a pickle, resting it just on the rim of its jar so she won't lose a single drop of its precious brine; the distaste with which she attacks a plate of tofu; or the importance she places on a tray of brownies for helping her understand a key element of the culture David represents.

To Maria, everything means everything—and Redgrave conveys nothing less herself. Throwaway bits and soul-searching speeches alike are delivered with identical intensity, sorrow and elation with equivalent purity of heart. It's not just that Redgrave is convincing in every second, though she is, but that every choice seems correct for this secretly broken woman trying to use this vital young man to repair herself. So when, after several days of enduring David, whose perspectives on friends and family are quite different from hers, Maria crumbles into distrustfulness, it's a choice you've hoped she wouldn't have to make—she may have survived the ghetto and the concentration camps during World War II, but it's not as clear she'll survive what she apparently sees as betrayal from her own blood. And Redgrave forces you to regard it as something considerably more than the whims of an emotionally unstable old woman.

Alas, it's difficult to regard the rest of The Revisionist as anything but considerably less. Even more than Eisenberg's 2011 playwriting debut, Asuncion, this one struggles to prop itself up with even a minimum of relevance whenever Redgrave is not carrying it on her shoulders.

Though he's structured the 105-minute evening as something of a love letter to Maria, and a condemnation of David's selfish actions, Eisenberg hasn't injected the characters with enough substance to justify even a 10-minute skit. David is a writer who's about to turn over the manuscript of his latest book (his second—his first was an impenetrable children's-book anti-fascist allegory), but has lost the ability to write, hence his trip to Poland to reignite his creative spark. But his only defining traits are his mild selfishness, a fondness for vodka and marijuana, and the suggestion that he's not as talented as he thinks he is; Eisenberg reveals nothing else about his life, his background, his dreams, or his non-writing personality. And aside from brief glimpses into her checkered past and her affinity for a family she's mostly never met, we don't get to know Maria much better.

The intermittent revelations that keep pushing David and Maria both together and apart are not enough to drive a play populated by blank slates and containing no action whatsoever. In fact, they're routinely more jarring than they are affecting, with the biggest one particularly stunning in both its ordinariness and in how little change it introduces into either the characters or our perceptions of them. We learn more from Maria sitting to have her legs shaved by a kindly, if dim-witted, taxi driver Zenon (a game Daniel Oreskes) than we do from most of her encounters with David. That scene is also warmer and, when Maria and David program the Polish-speaking Zenon with some choice English words and phrases, more entertaining.

Eisenberg plays David with an energetic gusto that's perhaps too effective at tempering his callousness; though he remains as appealing onstage as he does onscreen in movies like The Social Network, Eisenberg doesn't seem to want you to like David—that only adds additional confusion. Fagan's staging, on John McDermott's stuffed-to-the-ceiling apartment set, is as potent as it can be under the circumstances. The overall impact is similar to that of another old-woman-young-man-familial-romance play, Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, albeit with a much richer humanity. But it's not enough to convince you that this is a story that needs to be told—or even a fully formed story at all.

Redgrave, however, is as three-dimensional as can be, approaching every moment with a wounded sincerity that stops you from ever completely them or the play that contains them. David and Maria might have excellent reasons for disliking or distrusting each other, considering the ways their big and small lies are silently ripping apart the fragile bonds between them, but Eisenberg gives us neither the information nor the urgency we need to properly process them. Because Redgrave does, The Revisionist often seems much more like a thick-cut filet mignon than the tofu log it actually is.

The Revisionist
Through March 31
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, one block south of Bleecker
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