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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE REVISIONIST
at Cherry Lane Theatre

UNCOMMON GROUND
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg/ Ph: Sandra Coudert

Talk about culture shock. When the two main characters in Jesse Eisenberg’s thoughtful new play meet, they’re separated by age, sex, native language, national customs and the experience of the Holocaust. All that seems to connect them is the idea of family. To one of them, that means a lifetime of shared loyalties, while to the other it’s essentially a free bed-and-breakfast. But watching the slow, difficult negotiation of a real bond between the two proves unexpectedly riveting. And excellent performances make The Revisionist, rumored to be heading to Broadway, worth catching while it’s still at the more intimate Cherry Lane Theatre.
 
David (Jesse Eisenberg) is a self-absorbed young writer so tightly wound he seems to move on springs. He’s come to Poland to revise a science-fiction novel he’s having trouble with—and at least ostensibly to visit his elderly cousin Maria (Vanessa Redgrave), who’s a Holocaust survivor. They’ve met only once—when David was a child—and he doesn’t even remember her. Maria, however, has enough sense of family history for a whole tribe, cherishing the pictures that adorn her cluttered apartment and welcoming her young relative with open arms. He’s less than receptive at first, but her stubborn hospitality and unflagging interest in him (the latter, at least, is a trait he shares) makes inroads, and the two start to develop a real rapport, until during a night of heavy vodka drinking, some unexpected family history is revealed that has the potential to revise everything.
 
The play examines in scrupulous detail the various conflicts and compromises that the two main characters endure in order to share an apartment, however briefly. When David arrives, Maria greets him with the gift of a notebook, for his writing, and asks boldly, “What did you bring me?” David, who was evidently raised by wolves who are unaware of hostess gifts, eventually produces a duty-free bottle of Polish vodka, which even the besotted Maria knows was meant for him rather than her. And even the narcissistic David comes, slowly, to see Maria’s savviness and strength. Ramrod-backed and vigorous, Redgrave’s Maria is a survivor in more ways than one, and she’s created a life for herself that works, however it looks to an outsider. And indeed, when David stumbles upon Zenon (David Oreskes), Maria’s cab-driver friend who picks up groceries and checks in on her, shaving her legs, he’s shocked—even after Maria explains that she lets him do it because it reminds him of his dead mother. But the ways in which Maria indulges Davis are, to her, no less extreme, though he realizes that too late.
 

Redgrave portrays Maria’s cheery vitality with an underlying wariness. She’s determined to win David over, whether it takes feeding him tofu instead of chicken or “teaching” Zenon English swear words. But there are lines that she won’t cross, and we see Redgrave recoil when they’re approached. Nervous and nervy, Eisenberg is the perfect foil. David is as reluctant to engage as Maria is eager to embrace him, and his indifference just feeds her efforts. Ironically, as she does make inroads, we see similarities in the two that go beyond their wiry energy: a sense of irony, glimpses of a gleeful sense of humor, a certain aloofness. Although the turn in this play is, unfortunately, its weakest and most contrived moment, it’s a testament to the playwright and actors' talents that we really feel sorry that these two souls can’t ultimately connect—though at least Maria has managed to show David that this is, in fact, a loss.

 


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