In her Playbill bio for The Revisionist, Vanessa Redgrave states she is "immensely excited by the script…which she accepted as soon as she read the play." That’s perfectly understandable. Her role of Maria, a Polish Holocaust survivor, affords plenty of juicy theatrical opportunities. She gets to tells her harrowing story, crack jokes, mangle English a bit in a heavy accent, fuss over and then yell at her visiting young American cousin. But the play containing Maria is a predictable sketch that comes across as an exercise for a college playwriting course.
This is actor-writer Jesse Eisenberg’s second play for Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in which he is also starring. He’s essentially playing the same character as in his first effort Asuncion: an intelligent, condescending young man, who harms a female relative through his insecurity. In that play, Eisenberg was a jittery college student assuming his new Filipino sister-in-law is a prostitute. This time he’s David, a blocked writer staying with his elderly cousin Maria in Poland. In a credulity-stretching plot point, he’s there in order to finish revising his science-fiction novel, a follow-up to his debut work that was published when he was in his early 20s. David fears he will never be able to repeat his previous success and ignores the doting Maria who idolizes her American relations. It’s as if the playwriting class assignment were to put two opposite characters in the same small space and see what happens (John McDemott designed the cramped, lived-in apartment set). Naturally, they come into conflict, get drunk on vodka, and reveal deep, dark secrets. At first, it appears the title refers to David, but during the drunk scene, we discover it really describes Maria. Without revealing too much, she has altered her history as a result of her harrowing childhood experiences.
To mix things up a bit, Eisenberg brings in Zenon, a gruff taxi driver who likes to shave Maria’s legs. Yes, this stage business is as ridiculous as it sounds and feels like Eisenberg jammed it in to provide some comic relief.
Eisenberg is a talented playwright and actor. He has a sharp sense of dialogue and basic structure. Plus he provides some fascinating, life-like details such as an endless series of phone calls from a charity for the blind. But there are too many plot holes to ignore. (Would David really not know the names and connections of his distant relations so that Maria has to explain them?) As a performer, he plays David as such a whining brat ("Poor me" is his whole subtext), it’s difficult to sympathize with him.
Fortunately, Redgrave creates a living, breathing woman out of melodramatic clichés. As Maria retells her tragic story, Redgrave doesn’t go for the obvious weepy histrionics. Like a wound that has never healed, Maria’s past is painful to touch, and Redgrave skirts around the sore, coughing and pausing, then after knocking back several shots of vodka, she rips the scab off and relives the agony. Then she quickly covers it back up by asking David to recite a comedy routine. You can almost see Maria’s thoughts forming on Redgrave’s eloquent features as she caresses family photos, fights with David, scowls at a plate of tofu, or just watches CNN. Dan Oreskes creates a zesty and swaggering Zenon, though the role is small and almost entirely in Polish. Kudos also to Kip Fagan for staging the contrived action at a steady clip.
The main fault here is Eisenberg’s underdeveloped and unbelievable script. Ironically, this Revisionist is in need of revising.
March 1, 2013
Originally Published on March 3, 2013
Photo By Sandra Coudert
Feb. 28-Apr. 21. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm 7 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 100 minutes with no intermission. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111. www.ovationtix.com
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