March 2, 2013

Two Hot Plays by Two Celebrity Playwrights

Young Hollywood stars coming to New York to act in plays is so last year.  Now, they’re writing the plays. Just this past week, I saw The Revisionist, a new play by Jesse Eisenberg, most famous for playing Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network;” and The Vandal, by Hamish Linklater, best known for his role on the CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” 

The Revisionist, which opened on Thursday night at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, is the more high profile of the two because it stars not only its playwright but the great Vanessa Redgrave as well. However, The Vandal, which finishes a six-week run at The Flea Theater in Tribeca tomorrow, is the one that will stick with me.

Although Eisenberg is only 29 and Linklater 36, both plays center around older women struggling to cope with loss and loneliness. And both playwrights have been blessed with actors who are so natural and grounded in those roles that I almost forgot they were acting.

Of course it’s no surprise that Redgave delivers a performance like that. Indeed, no self-respecting theater lover should ever pass up the chance to see her on stage and so my theatergoing buddy Bill and I were really looking forward to seeing The Revisionist, despite my tepid response to Eisenberg’s first play, the quirky buddy comedy Asuncion, which was also produced by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (click here to see my review of that). 

This time Eisenberg's odd couple are David, a narcissistic young writer from New York who has traveled to Poland to stay with an elderly cousin he barely knows; and David's host Maria, a survivor of both the Holocaust and the Cold War who is so devoted to her American kin that she’s hung their photos over her bed. Maria sees David's visit as a reflection of their familial bond; he’s just looking for a place to crash.

This crone-succors-cub scenario is reminiscent of the dynamic in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles and Alexander Dinelaris’ Red Dog Howls but this is a less accomplished effort than either of those. Eisenberg has created interesting characters and he’s given them some snappy things to say but he hasn’t given the play much heart (click here to read about him and the making of the play). 

That, luckily for theatergoers, is where Redgrave steps in. For with just a sideways glance or the shrug of a shoulder, she’s able to convey the emotional whirl thrumming beneath Maria’s affable exterior.

Redgrave doesn’t entirely make up for Eisenberg’s own self-indulgent acting (egged on by fans who hooted at everything he said and did at the performance Bill and I attended) or for Kip Fagan’s lackluster direction but she’s mesmerizing all the same and worth the price of the ticket.  

An intergenerational encounter also sparks the action in The Vandal. As a morose middle-aged woman and a garrulous teen wait for a bus, the boy chips way at the woman’s reserve until she finally agrees to purchase some beer for him since he’s too young to buy it himself.  

Complications arise when the curmudgeon who owns the nearby deli professes to be the boy’s father. As the play unspools over the next 70 minutes, the relationships between the three—who are identified only as Man, Woman, Boy—shift and secrets are revealed.

Another marquee name, Helen Hunt, was originally slated to play Woman but when she withdrew, Jim Simpson, the artistic director of The Flea, who also directed this production, wisely brought in Deirdre O’Connell, who seems incapable of giving anything less than a superb performance. Here, she makes the character’s somewhat surreal journey from despair to hope entirely believable.

O'Connell gets strong support from her co-stars along the way. Robbins, who in the past has brought a jittery but honest intensity to such roles as Eugene in the 2009 revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, is terrific here.  In fact, he’d probably be great as David in The Revisionist too.  

Meanwhile, Zach Grenier, who usually gets cast as bombastic grouches such as the divorce attorney David Lee on TV’s “The Good Wife,” is given the chance to show a softer side and makes the most of it in the quiet final moments of the play.  

Like Eisenberg, Linklater leans a little too heavily on a bet-you-didn’t-see-this-coming plot twist and on the hoary device of having a character tell all after drinking too much. But Linklater (click here to read a piece about him) seems to care more about his characters and in the end, aided by Simpson’s sensitive direction, so did I.

Update: I'm happy to be able to say that The Vandal has scheduled a week of encore performances from March 22 to March 31. You should go.

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