Some months ago I reviewed Amy Herzog's critically acclaimed 4000 MILES, about a troubled twenty-something young man visiting his ninety year old grandmother. There wasn't a lot to the play -- a bunch of short scenes chronicling the uneasy relationship between the young man and the elderly lady, an angry girlfriend and an unearned happy ending. The characters were well-drawn, the acting very good, but I didn't think it all amounted to much. Now with Jesse Eisenberg's THE REVISIONIST, we have another troubled twenty-something man in an uneasy relationship with an elderly lady. The difference is that THE REVISIONIST is much more than the sum of its parts with a surprise, not so happy, ending that makes total sense after one thinks about it. Eisenberg doesn't do all the thinking for his audience.
David (Jesse Eisenberg) is a writer who is having problems revising his novel (he has already written a young adult novel that sold 64,000 copies -- hardly Harry Potter numbers -- and garnered some good reviews and a pan from the New York TIMES. For reasons not clear at first, he has decided to do the revision in the shabby Szczecin, Poland flat of Maria, a second cousin he has never met (Vanessa Redgrave). Maria has made all sorts of preparations for David's arrival, but David is not the most socially adept creature, to put it mildly, and basically rejects all Maria's attempts at proper hospitality. David, who doesn't seem to be close to anyone, doesn't like to be touched emotionally or physically. At first he wants nothing more than to be left alone, but develops a writer's curiosity for Maria's past during the holocaust when her (and his?) family was murdered by the Nazis. Losing her family has made Maria fascinated, one might say obsessed, with the lives of her remaining distant relatives, even though she has only met one of them for coffee once.
Yes, David is there to revise his novel -- something he doesn't seem able to do -- but we discover that Maria is the real revisionist, living out a fantasy of family relationships though unable to deal with real familial intimacy, perhaps out of fear of losing loved ones again. There is a brief moment when these two lost souls come together, but not everyone can change easily. Maria tells David what she calls a joke, though there is no punch line, about a bird who falls into a pile of cow shit. The bird cleans off its feathers and flies off, only to be attacked and killed by a larger bird. The moral of Maria's story -- sometimes it's safer to be stuck in shit than to fly into freedom. Does the new post-Nazi, post-Soviet world frighten her? Would she prefer to be stuck in the shit of her isolation, except for the taxi driver who runs her errands and shaves her legs, who thinks of her as a replacement for his deceased mother? THE REVISIONIST is a totally absorbing play; funny in parts, but ultimately deeply moving as we come to understand some, not all, of the mystery of these two characters. Their backstories are sketchy because they don't give away a lot, but we find out enough to understand and empathize and our sympathies may switch from one character to another as the play goes on.
Of course Eisenberg can write for actors and THE REVISIONIST delivers 105 minutes of the best acting I have seen in a long time. Maria is a plum role for Redgrave, and I must say it isn't often in the theatre that I forget the actress and become totally absorbed in the character. Redgrave managed to do that. Eisenberg has written himself a part any casting director would want Jesse Eisenberg to play, but he does so with total commitment. He's a very physical actor, always a coiled spring -- like a cat he's all over the furniture -- but he's also always acting with Redgrave. On paper they may seem an unlikely acting team, but actually they play brilliantly together. Director Kip Fagan must share some of the credit for the magic. Eisenberg as playwright and actor and Redgrave as consummate actress make THE REVISIONIST a very special theatrical experience. The run at the Cherry Lane is sold out. If you don't have a ticket, pray that the rumors are true about a Broadway transfer.
THE REVISIONIST by Jesse Eisenberg. Cherry Lane Theatre. March 30, 2013.