NEW YORK -- Few actors are as good at playing young, wired, brainy, socially awkward people as Jesse Eisenberg, who memorably portrayed Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network."
Given his affinity for such characters, it's hardly surprising, then, that when Eisenberg wrote his own play he'd put one of them at the center – and play the role himself to boot.
The result is "Asuncion," a quirky, highly entertaining and wonderfully acted play that opened Thursday at off-Broadway's Cherry Lane Theatre.
The Cherry Lane is intimate, but about twice as big as the normal home of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which has produced this play. The bigger space is a good idea – when you have a recent Oscar nominee as star and playwright, you can expect a little buzz.
In this case, the buzz is well-earned. Eisenberg has written a play about the irony of extremely politically correct people, which is that they can be extremely insensitive. Such people can be annoying to spend an evening with, but luckily, this is a comedy, too. And a funny one.
The lights go up on a messy apartment in Binghamton, N.Y., clearly inhabited by either students or people living like them. Vinny – Justin Bartha, in a confident, charismatic comedic turn – is the first to enter, clearly the man of the house.
Vinny is white, but the decor speaks to his specialty: Black Studies. (He's three-quarters of the way toward his Ph.D. on the subject.) Vinny is dressed in a colorful, African-style robe, and there are Nelson Mandela and "Afrika" posters on the wall. A joint in his mouth, he starts to play an electric keyboard, occasionally banging on some African drums.
Enter Edgar – Eisenberg, all goofy and awkward, almost like a puppy. He's just been mugged and robbed, blood streaming down his face, but he refuses to recognize that this is, well, a bad thing. "They were just playing around," he says, after being thrown off his bike, slammed into a concrete pillar, knocked out and relieved of his cash. "It wasn't malicious." When he can't find his cell phone and Vinny suggests it was stolen, Edgar replies: "That's a little racist."
But what exactly does "racist" mean? The last thing these two would consider themselves is racist. Edgar keeps referring to a long-ago trip to Cambodia. He identifies with people he considers oppressed. He embraces them, even.
And so, when Edgar's brother shows up with his new wife – named Asuncion, and from the Philippines – Edgar draws certain conclusions. Never having been to the Philippines, he assumes she must be a victim of something.
The story Edgar concocts in his head is far-fetched, but also condescending – and indicative of someone who lives in his head, not in the real world. Eisenberg, with his neurotic, staccato style of delivery, makes it believable and amusing at the same time. You imagine he knows a number of people just like Edgar.
Director Kip Fagan adroitly keeps the action moving – no lulls here. Camille Mana and Remy Auberjonois give strong support as Asuncion and Stuart, Edgar's self-centered stockbroker brother.
But the chief pleasure here is watching Bartha and Eisenberg, and their adroit, rather twisted dance of a codependent relationship. With his cocky persona, Bartha ("The Hangover") is perfect for Vinny – a role apparently written for him.
And Eisenberg should take out a patent on roles of people uncomfortable in their own skin. It's striking how comfortable he is in playing uncomfortable people – and, here, in putting such a character on paper, too.