NEW YORK (AP) — It's probably safe to say there aren't too many 29-year-old playwrights out there who could get Vanessa Redgrave to appear in their work. Let alone in only their second play.
But Jesse Eisenberg isn't any 29-year-old playwright — he's also one of the more justifiably buzzed-about young actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar nomination under his belt to boot. And he's snagged no less than a genuine legend to co-star with him in his quasi-autobiographical new play, "The Revisionist," a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production directed by Kip Fagan that opened Thursday at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
His luck is ours, because Redgrave gives a beautifully raw and affecting performance that energizes every minute of this quirky and sometimes heartbreaking meditation on the meaning of family, both across the generations and across the globe.
"The Revisionist" may sound like a reference to a sinister movie villain — Beware the Revisionist, coming to revise you! — but actually it's just a reference to David, the young, jittery, self-involved writer played by Eisenberg. And this actor knows what he's doing when it comes to playing young, jittery, self-involved types, as we saw with his memorable turn as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network."
If David seems less interesting than some other characters Eisenberg has played, maybe it's just that he is so annoying, you want to slap him and send him to bed. At least with the young Zuckerberg, you knew he was going to become a major figure of our times. David, though, seems to think he eventually will, too.
We meet David as he arrives in Poland to visit his 75-year-old second cousin, Maria. Actually, it's only in Maria's wishful thinking that David is coming to see HER. As we soon learn, David doesn't care much to know Maria — he is suffering writer's block and simply needs a faraway place to work for a week, revising his novel.
Within minutes of meeting David, you want to shout, "Where are your manners, young man?" Maria's been waiting for him for hours in an excited panic, but all he wants to do is closet himself away with his Mac and smoke a joint. He declines conversation, and dismisses the chicken dinner she's prepared, saying he's a vegetarian.
Maria, though, seems to idolize her younger American relative, purely and simply because he is family. David learns that Maria has read his first book — twice! — and keeps The New York Times review in a frame in the living room. The dialogue that ensues will be familiar to anyone whose mother has saved a mediocre piece of schoolwork or an ugly photo.
"It was a bad review!" David says, stunned and embarrassed.
"My flesh and blood in New York Time," Maria replies in her broken English. "I put in frame. Is important newspaper. I was thinking maybe you sign it for me."
It's a quick exchange, but an apt illustration of the issue at the crux of this play, which is that this brash young American cannot conceive of what family means to this elderly Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust and the deaths of her immediate family.
It's illustrated too in the amusing scene where David happens upon the taxi driver Zenon (an effective Daniel Oreskes, speaking Polish here) blissfully shaving Maria's legs. When Maria explains that Zenon used to do it for his late mother, David's indignance is classic Eisenberg: "That's not really a sufficient explanation for what I just witnessed!" he positively barks.
In his first play, the 2011 "Asuncion," also directed by Fagan, Eisenberg examined the way people can be so sensitive in their political correctness as to be woefully insensitive. Here he examines a different sort of insensitivity: to the ties that bind families, across time and space. He has said he based this play loosely on a visit he himself once took to see a relative in Poland.
"The Revisionist" does not have a neat, happy ending. But you could say that the revisions do not merely occur in David's book. He and Maria, too, end up somewhat revised by their brief and uncomfortable meeting.