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New York City Theater

"The Revisionist"
Cherry Lane Theater

Watching the great Vanessa Redgrave trying to eat tofu is an unforgettable lesson in comic timing. She approaches the coagulant, fork in hand, with the caution of a matador facing a furious bull. Digging into a chunk, she raises it ever so slowly to her lips, hesitating as if praying for a reprieve. Finally, she puts it in her mouth and lets it sit there without swallowing before washing it down with gulps of water. Her expressions tell all we need to know about the revulsion she feels.

It’s an exquisite moment in “The Revisionist,” the new play by and with Jesse Eisenberg who won an Oscar nomination for his role in the film, “The Social Network.” The work, ensconced in the tiny off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater, is a meandering affair that starts better than it unwinds, yet provides three actors (Daniel Oreskes is the third) with juicy roles.

Eisenberg plays David, a New Yorker come to Poland ostensibly to visit his cousin Maria. Although she goes out of her way to make him comfortable, to feed and nurture him, he really wants to be left alone to finish the sci-fi novel he’s anxiously slaving over. “I came here to work,” he says. “I think you came here to visit me,” she replies.

His book is titled “Mindreader,” a work about people who can hear others’ thoughts. The title is ironic since here are two people at cross purposes, expecting but not receiving.

It’s a clash of cultures. David is content to drink vodka and smoke marijuana, carefully opening the window to let the smell out. Maria, while happy to host him, not only wants to ply him with food (she offers chicken, he’s a vegetarian), but yearns for the family connection he would seem to embody. Oreskes is Zenon, Maria’s devoted friend who, by contrast, shows up David for the selfish jerk he is.

One crisis has David turn pictures of the family to the wall, a knife in Maria’s heart. She eventually relates her Holocaust story in a scene that, given its importance, is attenuated. It’s as if, since Maria has trouble facing the past, we in the audience should also be spared.

Under Kip Fagan’s meticulous direction, on John McDermott’s particularized set, Redgrave obeys the dictum that meaning is in the details. She’s aided by Eisenberg’s true-to-the-ear dialogue.

“The Revisionist:” is a snapshot in miniature, compelling to sit through but finally small-bore. There’s no arguing with Redgrave’s portrait, however. It towers.

--David A. Rosenberg
March 1, 2013

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