Jesse Eisenberg, the Academy Award-nominated actor (The Social Network) who has cornered the market on playing complicated, socially awkward young men with chips on their shoulders and bite on their tongues, appears Off-Broadway in The Revisionist, a play he wrote and in which he co-stars at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Featured opposite him is Vanessa Redgrave, with her estimable acting pedigree and mantelpiece cluttered with awards, who plays Maria, a lonely Jewish woman with a Holocaust past living in Poland. Maria eagerly awaits a visit from her much younger distant cousin, David (played by Eisenberg), a middling American novelist who travels to the former Soviet bloc not for a family reunion but rather for a change of scenery, hoping to rid himself of his apparent writer's block.
While there he discovers an older cousin hungering for news about her American family, the same family that David shares but about whom he knows very little -- and cares even less.
Eisenberg plays the ugly American -- all narcissism, neurosis and drug-assisted indifference. With a family lineage wiped out in the Holocaust, David now finds himself in Poland, once the Mecca of Jewish cultural life, possessing little curiosity about the Jewish world that was extinguished a mere generation earlier. And he doesn't show much interest in the one cousin who managed to survive, either. For him, Maria is like a one-night stand -- a place to escape the failure and mediocrity that defines his spoiled American-Jewish life.
Throughout this lively and entertaining one-act play, David never leaves the cramped apartment. He's not on some sentimental nostalgia tour. For her part, Maria is all broken English and fluttery, good-natured attentiveness. She's interested in talking, about almost anything other than her past.
That's all fine as David and Maria learn to share space in such close quarters. Maria draws closer while David vainly tries to avoid his family-starved cousin. Of course, this being a play about the Holocaust -- the orphans that were made, the fractured lives formed, the family photographs that had to be re-imagined -- some darkness must inevitably shadow this stage. David learns that his cousin is holding on to a secret that explains the intensity with which she has attached herself to his family line.
Eisenberg has written some witty dialogue for he and Redgrave to lob at one another, and the relationship between these misbegotten relatives has a tenderness that transcends their mutual neediness. David brings all the privilege of his Jewish-American life to the motherland that was once Jewish Poland only to discover that not being able to find oneself professionally is not quite the same thing as being completely lost. In the end, these cousins need a lot more from each other than either can ever possibly supply.
Redgrave's stage presence carries the evening, but Eisenberg once again shows himself to be a shrewdly nimble actor who also has the ambition to take on a weighty emotional theme in this finely executed play.