Monday, March 18, 2013

The Revisionist: Redgrave Plays Eisenberg

Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg in The Revisionist (All photos by Sandra Coudert)

Jesse Eisenberg is one lucky bastard: he managed to get Vanessa Redgrave, arguably the greatest living actress – certainly she’s in the top three or four – to star opposite him in his own play. The Revisionist, which is being produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, is a two-hander in which David, a young American writer who’s having trouble doing the revisions his publisher has requested on his second book, a sci-fi novel, visits Maria, his grandfather’s cousin and a Holocaust survivor, in Szczecin, Poland. She’s overjoyed to see him, eager to play host and show him around the city; he’s just hoping that some peace and quiet in a remote setting will propel him through his writer’s block. He’s the world’s worst house guest – not just a vegetarian (a fact he neglected to mention when he invited himself for a visit) but uninterested in food, so the dinner she’s prepared for him on his first night goes unappreciated. (He just wants to go to sleep.) He finds any kind of noise distracting; he’s caustic, impatient, judgmental and completely self-absorbed. And his treatment of her vodka-swigging taxi driver friend (and sometime lover) Zenon (Daniel Oreskes) – whom he finds washing her feet, a task Zenon apparently performed for the dead mother whose loss he still grieves – is condescending. Moreover, David is wound so tight that he keeps retreating to his room to pry open the window and sneak a few tokes from the stash of weed he managed to get through customs. Only when Maria alludes to her Holocaust experience – her entire family was murdered by the Nazis while her babysitter hid her until the end of the war – does David show any interest in her.

Daniel Oreskes, Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg
The play, which has been directed by Kip Fagan, bears some resemblance to Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, which is mostly a series of conversations between a self-involved hippie and his grandmother, and it has the same problem: both young men are insufferable. I wonder if Eisenberg realized just how insufferable when he wrote the part for himself. Perhaps he assumed that, with his actor’s gift for comic neurosis, he could somehow make David worthy of our consideration, but if so it doesn’t work, though it isn’t Eisenberg’s acting that’s at fault. Maria is a fascinating character, and her eleventh-hour revelation – the truth about how, after the war, she connected with David’s family, whose photos she preserves lovingly on the wall of the guest room – shows that, as a playwright, Eisenberg has the capacity for genuine sympathetic imagination. But you resent her having to share her story with this narcissistic shlump whose response to her confession is to counter with one of his own: he admits that his despair at his lack of literary success drove him to take advantage of her generosity after he wasn’t able to get into any artists’ colonies. The effect is similar to that of the Nora Ephron film Julie and Julia, in which the charming narrative of Julia Child’s becoming a writer of cookbooks is cut down to half the length of an ordinary picture because of the other, jaw-droppingly trivial plot about the young woman who makes it her mission to cook every recipe in Child’s The Art of French Cooking.

The Revisionist begins with David’s arrival on Maria’s doorstep; the bell rouses her out of a sound sleep, and before answering the door she lights a candle and slicks down her hair to make herself presentable. These are banal enough tasks, but Redgrave, who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “ordinary,” lights up the theatre as she executes them. Her performance is more than enough reason to see the play. Redgrave’s rhythms are utterly quirky yet utterly realist; they’re so vibrant and experiential that they seem to demand a rethinking of how actors should read their lines, just as Robert Altman’s early masterpieces, with their overlapping dialogue and multi-track sound, reimagined the way movies could suggest the feel of conversation. Her portrayal is full of marvelous moments, like her sensual enjoyment of Zenon’s washing her feet (in a brief, two-scene role, Oreskes is quite fine) and her near-paralysis when she tells him she’s happy to talk about the Holocaust but then finds she can’t breathe and has to rush out of the room. When she gets herself (and David) drunk enough on the vodka he’s brought as a gift to relate her story, she begins by explaining about the ghetto; when he protests that he knows what a ghetto is (he even has the gall to say that he read Night in high school), she pauses with a look of amazement that borders on outrage, one of many examples of how much Redgrave can convey without words, with the power of her emotional precision alone. At the end of the play Maria throws him out – not because he’s behaved so badly (though that’s the excuse she provides and in our minds it’s more than ample reason) but because confessing the truth to him has made it impossible for her to face him the next morning. Yet after he’s gone, she takes the hoodie he left behind by accident and lays it out on his bed, delicately and affectionately, before throwing kisses at her family pictures, and you realize that, in his absence, he’s joined the rest of his family in romantic versions that substitute for reality in her mind. It’s a shocking finale.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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