The thrills are quiet ones in Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s current production of The Revisionist, a new play written by the talented actor-writer Jesse Eisenberg. The play, a three-person character study, is Eisenberg’s latest semi-autobiographical play to premiere in New York. This current outing is infinitely more mature than his confident 2011 debut, Asuncion, which also played at Rattlestick, mainly because its characters feel more intricately-drawn and its numerous comedic moments stem organically from our leading pair’s odd-couple duality.
Playwright Eisenberg also stars in the play as an ungrateful sci-fi novelist, David, who’s come to Poland to stay for a week with his 75-year-old second cousin, Maria (Vanessa Redgrave), in order to finish a revision of his latest novel, Mindreader. Maria, a Holocaust survivor, thinks that David has come to spend time with her and form a closer bond; she values even the most distant members of her family deeply and keeps a good number of pictures (including one of David, whom she hasn’t seen since the early 90s) around her apartment as keepsakes. David, on the other hand, views the visit (rather insensitively) as a sort of writer’s retreat, devoting most of his time to writing — or, rather, to pretending to write and sneaking hits of pot from a bowl, which he smokes standing up by one of Maria’s impossibly tall, difficult-to-open windows.
It’s this initial clash between Maria and David that is the motor of Eisenberg’s play and the reason it succeeds so wildly. From the word “go,” an audience is likely to be both sympathetic to and wary of David, who’s relatable as a tech-reliant American with a blasé attitude toward family but who also provokes ire with his utter disregard for Maria’s feelings.
As Maria, Vanessa Redgrave, whose cool blue eyes convey more subtext than Eisenberg could possibly pack into his script, turns in a thrilling, chameleon-like performance. Donning a consistent Polish accent, she presents the dual sides of her character — her desire to appease and her genuine sense of hurt — with skill. When David refuses the chicken she’s cooked and craves tofu instead, she appeases, but it’s increasingly apparent as the play goes on that his pile-on of insults, both miniature and outsized, takes its toll, even as David warms to Maria and becomes more receptive to learning the truth about her horrific past.
Redgrave is well-matched by Eisenberg; his performance isn’t terribly different from past roles (including his performance in Asuncion but also his take on Mark Zuckerberg in the film The Social Network), but he exudes a confidence and an emotional truthfulness onstage that demands an audience understand his actions even as we’re questioning his standoffishness. At one point, David walks in on Maria’s cab driver friend Zenon shaving her legs, a ritual that Maria explains reminds him of his dead mother; viscerally discomfited, David retreats to his bedroom. As an audience we’re left to wonder just what it is about this intimate encounter that troubles him so deeply; it’s a wonderful, original character detail and a telltale sign that the playwright understands how small moments fit into the overarching patterns of his subjects’ behavior.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Eisenberg as a playwright is that he’s managed to translate his unique humor into a pair (thus far) of works for theatre that understand the rhythms of the stage as distinct from those of film. Kip Fagan’s nicely-paced production gives Eisenberg’s characters room to breathe amidst John McDermott’s realistic, lived-in apartment set, which gives us a perfect visual slice of Maria’s life. Even more thrilling sometimes than crackling dialogue is observing the confidence with which a playwright of real skill utilizes stage action in order to convey the subtext of a moment — and how, in turn, the actors breathing life into the play can seize upon what they’re given and spark real dramatic tension.
During a particularly moving scene, David brings out a bottle of vodka that he and Maria share, a canny device that allows the characters to share things they wouldn’t otherwise. Maria opens up about her time in a Polish ghetto during and after World War II; in order to continue speaking, she takes additional shots, coughing as she goes. “Put your hands over your head,” he tells her in an effort to calm her down, holding her arms up as she gasps for breath. As she composes herself, Maria spontaneously grasps David tightly as he stands stock still, unsure of how to react. It’s this kind of wordless moment (there are several over the course of the evening) that perfectly demonstrates the production’s quiet strengths.
In The Revisionist, this symbiosis of actor, writer, director, and designer is near-perfect. With Eisenberg at the top of his game and a cast (Redgrave, Eisenberg, and, briefly, Daniel Oreskes, as Zenon) that works thrillingly in service of the piece, there isn’t much here not to commend.
As the play nears its conclusion, a revelation from Maria threatens to change the dynamic between the play’s two protagonists and challenges an audience’s notion hitherto of which character we’re meant to think of as the “revisionist” of the play’s title. Further demonstrating Eisenberg’s skill as a writer, this moment feels like a distinct, meaningful shift rather than a hurried denouement, as “surprise” endings often can. The characters react to this revelation and its aftermath in unexpected ways. Ultimately their concepts of family are fundamentally divergent, maybe even irreconcilably so. By avoiding pat conclusions, The Revisionist, a tightly-structured, deeply human play about the truthful mess of human experience, represents the best of what theatre as an art form can be.