What?! You mean Jesse Eisenberg isn’t in it? — dismayed theatergoer overheard outside the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
It’s tempting to approach The Revisionist, the sophomore playwriting effort by film star Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), with a certain amount of skepticism. Though the actor — who is currently onscreen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the $400 million comic-book blockbuster that opened last weekend to icy notices — didn’t exactly invent the job title of movie star-playwright (see: Sam Shepard), it’s hard to not speculate about just how much of Eisenberg’s meteoric Off-Broadway success has been driven by old-fashioned Hollywood marquee power.
The play’s 2013 premiere at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater, which also starred Eisenberg but won accolades mostly for the commanding presence of British stage and screen legend Vanessa Redgrave, featured the kind of dream cast and reviews that are the envy of any early-career writer. (It arguably took Shepard two decades to reach the same benchmark, ironically also at the Cherry Lane, with Steppenwolf Theatre’s 1982 production of True West.) But this Revisionist is not that production and not that cast.
Still, having one’s Los Angeles debut at the Annenberg and in the supple hands of director Robin Larsen is nice work if you can get it.
Deanna Dunagan is Maria, a 70-something Holocaust survivor who passes her days watching American news programs in her photo-festooned sliver of a railroad flat (rendered in fine-grain detail by designer Tom Buderwitz) in the Polish port city of Szczecin. Enter David (Seamus Mulcahy), her young American second cousin, a struggling novelist attempting to break his writer’s block and finish his stalled book by escaping the distractions of New York for the solitude of Maria's guest room.
“I never wanted to die so much,” she wisecracks to the bewildered American after he arrives three hours late. “I was going to stick my head in the oven, but it takes so long to heat, I changed my mind.”
It’s a shrewdly emblematic introduction to two characters divided by far more than generations and cultures: Maria is a mordantly sardonic but lonely widow pining for the family brutally taken from her a lifetime ago by the Nazis; David is just as alone but doesn’t know it, a callow young man cut off from both his creativity and the world by a single-minded pursuit of literary fame (the kind of ruthlessly narcissistic antihero that appears in all three of Eisenberg's plays thus far). The scene is also the first of what becomes an increasingly exasperating series of missed opportunities by David to make connections of a genuinely redemptive kind.
As a writer, Eisenberg has an actor’s instinct for sharp, incisive dialogue along with showstopping, revelatory images. A later scene wonderfully played by Dunagan and the fine Ilia Volok, in which David is revolted by the sight of Maria having her legs shaved by a middle-aged cab driver — in David's eyes, an act of seemingly unseemly familiarity; in Maria's, a tenderly familial act of helping a bereaved friend cope with the loss of his mother — cuts to the quick of the novelist’s crippling lack of empathy.
It is finely observed moments like these that underscore the play’s thematic ironies about the importance of family and the wounding blindness of American millennial entitlement. But they also come with a nagging sense that Eisenberg is ultimately dealing from a stacked deck. Sentimental dramas about the emotionally hidebound being redeemed — or not quite redeemed in this case — by the humanity of another are hardly new. And David is so one-sidedly opaque, Maria so luminously human, that the play's pathos ultimately feels manufactured rather than earned.
Such quibbling concerns may be irrelevant when it comes to the box-office calculus of the movie star/playwright, but they do mark The Revisionist as a journeyman effort from a writer of promise who may nevertheless want to hold on to his day job.
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; through April 17. (310) 746-4000, thewallis.org.