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stage dive

Theater Review: Jesse Eisenberg’s Undescended Asuncion

Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha in Asuncion.

Edgar (Jesse Eisenberg) is a quavery pudding of white guilt. First-world self-flagellation is the only decadence he allows himself. Even masturbation, that other, closely related form of self-abuse, is too luxurious for a cold-shower kid like him, and besides, the last time he took himself for a dance, it didn’t go well. (“My penis was smaller than ever. It was like it was dried and bagged. Like NASA ice cream or a shriveled apricot.”) Beaten bloody and robbed by black teenagers, he pities his attackers with a fierceness: “They‘re oppressed by everything. Every food-stamp banner and pothole and broken window, you know? Every missing tooth and every amputee... and I would punch me too! … I would do something to me, I would.”

But what that “something” might be, poor Edgar—blogger, self-anointed “journalist,” and cardboard stand-in for the Zuccotti generation that Eisenberg strenuously caricatures in Asuncion, his daffy, dangly, dopey new dark comedy—couldn’t tell you. He’s an emotionally paralyzed couch-surfer in the filthy Binghamton bachelor den of his former Black Studies T.A., Vinny (Justin Bartha), a potted-out slacker who tolerates Edgar’s presence... why? Does Vinny enjoy the Pinteresque head-games he plays with Edgar? Is he attracted to him? Does Edgar arouse Vinny’s parental instincts? Or all of the above?

It’s difficult to care. Both of these men feel, from the get-go, like a writer’s inventions; both do and say things that can only be justified by mental illness or clumsy literary explorations into the halfheartedly, softheadedly absurd. Eisenberg seems to know this, on some level, and attempts to make up for it by playing Edgar over-the-top, but the damage was done on the page. (Bartha, not having written this thing, seems more relaxed, and, it should be noted, plays a very effective bastard. At least Asuncion, unlike his last stage outing, All New People, gives him more to do besides react to other people’s insanity.)

As a writer, Eisenberg displays bravery, flashes of wit, and the beginnings of a real satiric sense, but the play he’s written is meretricious, superficially “provocative” nonsense - a young playwright’s practice swing. The show’s congenital defects present themselves almost immediately: When Edgar’s squareish brother Stuart (Remy Auberjonois) drops off his bubbly new Filipina-American wife Asuncion (Camille Mana) at the Vinny-Edgar hovel (for reasons that never feel even close to sufficient), Edgar makes the assumption (Asuncion? Get it?) that she is a sex-worker. Up goes the pedestal, out comes the “reporter’s notebook,” and Edgar’s furiously engaged in “saving” this woman—the first female with whom he’s come in contact for quite some time. We’re meant to laugh at Edgar’s manic repression and well-intentioned racism, but instead, we’re simply horrified that he hasn’t yet been humanely institutionalized. Vinny, his keeper and tormentor, is easier to understand, but neither really exerts much of an effect on the other. Meanwhile, Mana, as Asuncion, flirts listlessly with these mad, sad men, and mostly stays out of their way. Eventually, drugs are pumped into this fish tank to get things circulating, but it’s no use: Asuncion is the very definition of a self-limiting reaction. Eisenberg has no real compassion for his characters (and who can blame him?) or much interest in them beyond their loglines. Out of his own self-indulgent self-loathing or mere comic miscalculation, he can't stop looking down on his own creations. In doing so, he also looks down on us, his audience. He restates his comic thesis again and again, rather moving the ball down the field and trusting us to move with him. It should’ve been called Condescencion.

Asuncion is playing through November 27 at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Photo: Sandra Coudert