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stage dive

Theater Reviews: The Revisionist, The Madrid, Passion

Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg in Eisenberg's The Revisionist.

The Revisionist (at the Cherry Lane Theatre through March 31)

In The Revisionist, the second play by the talented actor Jesse Eisenberg, I’m starting to see a pattern emerge: He doesn’t like the Jesse Eisenberg character very much. That stammery, snide, self-fabulizing eighty-fiver, showily aglow with skin-deep social virtue that poorly conceals a towering disdain for humanity — he hates that dude. He wants us to hate him, too. But we’re way ahead of him. Watching The Revisionist — the tale of David, an entitled young writer (Eisenberg) who crashes with a distant, much-older Polish cousin, Maria (Vanessa Redgrave), to finish his awful-sounding science-fiction novel — boils down to a lot of waiting around for a Situation to kindle itself into a Story and for the snit to receive his comeuppance. The title will, no doubt, tempt many a critic to an easy jab, and I’ll be one of them: This is what I’d call a promising draft. It cries out for revision.

Here’s the thing: The Revisionist deserves revising. (Unlike his earlier effort Asuncion, also directed by Kip Fagan and produced by the Rattlestick, which felt like a prickly, self-conscious college play that Justin Bartha happened to wander into.) It begins marvelously, ferociously, with elements you’ve seen before (a language barrier, a generation gap) reinvigorated with new energy, transformed into crisscrossing streamers of near-miss dialogue and asymmetric intent. Maria keeps pictures of adored American relatives she’s barely acquainted with on her walls; she’s even framed a New York Times pan of David’s first novel.  (When he asks why she didn’t frame one of his better reviews, Maria snaps, “I don’t want better review! I want New York Time review!”—which, really, says it all.) She wants to run her fingers through his curls, tell him he looks exactly like his grandfather, roast him a chicken. David, on the other hand, rebuffs every overture with gelid sarcasm. (He’s a vegetarian. Doesn’t she know what that is?) Imposition clearly comes easy to this pipsqueak solipsist: He wants to be left alone with his stash and his computer — even though he’s obviously too blocked to write a word, with or without the pot he keeps blowing out through Maria’s transom. The windows in her world don’t open easily: Her only portals to the outside are her television (always tuned to WorldCNN), her phone (nothing but telemarketers, whom she indulges at length), and a truculent cab driver named Zenon (Daniel Oreskes), who drops by occasionally to shave her legs. The sight disgusts David, and he’s kind enough to say so.

Redgrave and Eisenberg make a surprisingly savory stage pair. Her deep, dogged characterization sinks into the molten Play-Doh of his natural squirminess; his evasions parry her attacks. The chemistry is very much alive … but it has nowhere to go. David is so comically vile, so repugnant, so fully damned the moment we meet him, his character can’t put down any roots. Within minutes, we’ve dismissed him. Maria’s the richer mystery, but her character loses cohesion and stability in Eisenberg’s floundering dénouement, and Redgrave, for all the many sorceries at her disposal, can only try to emote her way out of the oubliette she’s in. When Oreskes took the stage, I felt relief: Here comes a breath of fresh air, I thought, a way to shake things out. No dice: Zenon’s basically there to move scenery and anchor a gag. We’re left with a duel to the death between two constructs who don’t budge — and won’t be budged, because there’s simply not enough story to budge them.

As you may have gathered, we’ve been heading towards a Holocaust revelation all this time. (The log line pitch for The Revisionist might read “The Man Who Came to Dinner meets Misery meets Everything Is Illuminated.”) Eisenberg quickly reaches a plateau, however; he’s played his character cards aggressively and up front, and the play’s got nothing in the tank after its strong opening blitz. There’s a long torpid stretch where David and Maria squabble, share, dance around the main event. David melts a bit but remains David, because Eisenberg’s too angry with him to see him redeemed or even revealed. Maria’s secrets begin to unravel, but her reactions don’t track. Everything starts to feel rushed and draggy at the same time. (The vodka bottle emerges: Time for truth roulette!) The Revisionist wants to be about what happens when one invented life collides with another, when true self-deception meets its flimsier cousin, narcissism. But once he’s pulled back the curtain, Eisenberg has little to reveal beyond a healthy self-flagellation. What I see here is a work in progress, despite the “world premiere” label. When a young Best Actor nominee and geek sex symbol aspires to be Wallace Shawn, hey, it’s worth waiting for the next revision. 

The Madrid (at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I at City Center through April 21)
One of the most stunningly awkward moments in Liz Flahive’s The Madrid — a moody, zingy dramedy comprised solely of stunning awkward moments, each of them carefully choreographed—comes when Martha (Edie Falco), a wife, mother, and kindergarten teacher who’s run away from home, spends a tense minute peering at her daughter’s back-tattoo in horror and rapt fascination. The daughter, Sarah (Phoebe Strole), is uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons: Her mother has, in recent weeks, abandoned her father (John Ellison Conlee) without so much as a phone call, and now demands total confidentiality from Sarah, the only person from her old life who knows about her new life.  Meanwhile, Sarah, a recent college grad with no obvious career vector, has taken over her mother’s kindergarten classes and inherited her at-home responsibilities, too. An older, endearingly goofy, very married neighbor Danny (Christopher Evan Welch, hapless like a fox) is making ambiguous overtures that Sarah’s just at-sea enough to consider accepting; his high-strung wife Becca (a superb Heidi Schreck) is taking note. (I hereby call for a Danny/Becca spinoff: Schreck and Welch are a terrifying twosome whose slow spiral-dive you can’t stop watching: They’re so funnily sorry-ungrateful-regretful-unhappy, you bleed a little when the jokes land.)

But the show belongs to Strole (Spring Awakening, The Big Meal) and Falco, who — with firm guidance and expert pacing supplied by director Leigh Silverman — endow Flahive’s polished wit with a supple humanity. Falco can say more with her eyes, in a painfully quiet moment, than most of us will blather in a lifetime. And Strole, without resorting to any of the usual mopey trickery, captures the aimlessness of post-college and grounds the wackier, more sitcom-premise-y aspects of the story in real emotional consequences.  “I loved you very much,” Martha tells Sarah, explaining her escape, “so I worked hard every day to make sure you didn’t know what I was feeling.” Falco, Strole and Flahive work very hard — with very satisfying results — to make that sound a little more heroic, a little less pathetic and cold than it seems on the page. In The Madrid, responsibility isn’t simply a matter of accepting or rejecting. It’s an ongoing process, as messy as Flahive’s writing is tight and concise.

Passion (at Classic Stage Company through April 7)

John Doyle's intimate, de-opera-fied chamber-musical version of Sondheim's '94 Tony winner — starring Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and a dowdied-down Judy Kuhn as repellent, magnetic Fosca — makes the "controversy" surrounding the Tony-winning original seem even dumber than it was back then. Is it really so shocking to show ugly, pushy people in love? Isn't that, like, most of us?

It’s 1863, and handsome Giorgio (Silverman), a soldier in Garibaldi’s Italy, is in love with beautiful Clara (Errico). But Giorgio’s soon transferred to an unlovely mountain outpost, where he becomes unofficial caretaker to Fosca (Kuhn), the chronically ill cousin of the Colonel (Stephen Bogardus, always a treat). He writes to Clara daily, telling her about Fosca, who, apart from being a withered, frightening spectre of death, is also a skilled emotional blackmailer with absolutely nothing to lose. What she wants is Giorgio, body and soul, before she died. “The weak protect themselves,” warns Dr. Tambouri (Tom Nelis). “The defensive soldier often lives longer than the brave one.” The drama kicks into gear when Giorgio realizes that what he wants is, perhaps, not what he thought he wanted; and when Fosca reveals his romantic and carnal bond with Clara to be something different than what he thought. At the bottom of James Lapine’s bewitching book (based on the Scapigliatura-era novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti), at the fundament of Sondheim’s mesmeric, interpolated score, is the question of love and self-love, and whether they are, in fact, separable. Kuhn’s Fosca is less of a shrill provocation lobbed at our beauty myths and more of an existential riddle in stooped human form. She’s also in fine, plangent voice, and so is Silverman, who proves exceptionally good at walking the line between opera archetype and interior characterization. It’s a challenge to make Fosca “likeable,” to use the studio-executive-ese, but it’s just as hard to sell us Giorgio, a man who think he’s merely caught between passion and altruism, when there’s a far scarier force at work (How does a man who’s first and foremost in love with himself turn down unconditional love? However pathetic?) Briefly, brutally, brilliantly, and a little punishingly, you feel every minute of Passion’s abbreviated running time — this show squeezes romanticism until it hurts. Doyle isn’t a “passionate” director, more of a chessmaster, and while that dampens the Giorgio-Clara-Fosca chemistry a tad, it leaves room for more philosophical clarity. He also hasn’t assigned any of his performers instruments this time, and for good reason: They are instruments.

The Dance and the Railroad (at the Signature Center through March 24)

David Henry Hwang's 1981 two-hander has been revived with sparkling charm and flawless comedy arcing between smooth Yuekun Wu and goofy Ruy Iskandar: The former plays Lone, a student of the Chinese opera sent by his impoverished family to labor on the American transcontinental railroad in 1867; the latter Ma, his younger, greener co-toiler, a kid with big dreams and zero experience. Dance is perhaps the purest, most poetic distillation of Hwang's wry lostness and dislocation, with its clever inversions of language and dialect (one man speaks formal but accented English, the other slangy English, and both revert to Chinese only occasionally) and its use of opera conventions to tell a bitter, funny coming-of-age-in-America tale. The setup is elegantly simple: Lone’s a cynic, Ma’s a dreamer. Lone knows the opera — he carries the choreography in his muscles, like a language. (Wu is mesmerizing in motion.) Gawky Ma wants to learn the steps — wants to play the hero, of course. Lone thinks little of heroes, beyond the parts he’s trained for. He thinks the railroad strike will achieve nothing, believes the “Chinamen” are crooks and savages; Ma thinks they’re important and sees the strike as their chance to prove it.  The big questions (identity, alienation, the worth of art and artist in a brutal, unjust world) unspool easily and colloquially, with little huffing and puffing, as two young men teach each other what fear is, what strength is, who’s truly alive and who’s functionally dead. The conclusions are distressing — after all, the “gold mountain” they’re dancing on consumes the lives of “Chinamen” daily — and the inquiry itself highly stylized, filtered through Chinese-opera conventions. But the jagged, unsettled friendship between these wayfarers, caught between worlds, feels disarmingly casual.

Katie Roche (at The Mint through March 24)

Boardwalk Empire's Wrenn Schmidt emits a poignant, plangent cri de coeur as the title character of Teresa Deevy's lost Irish drama, unearthed by the Mint. Her Katie — a flummoxed, impetuous servant girl whose clueless master half-dragoons her into marriage — pulls us into a world of perilously limited choices and dangerously fervid souls that won't stay penned up. A little Hedda here, a little Downton there, a sprinkle of Hawthornean moral torture throughout: Katie Roche is an arch twist on Lives of the Saints. (Katie aspires to be one, and, in a way, gets her wish.) The production is vintage Mint: solid, staid, a little fusty. But like their previous Deevy productions (Wife to James Whelan, Temporal Powers), the dramatic momentum grows as the play barrels on. Schmidt, carried away in currents bigger than she is, fights every step of the way. Katie’s a remarkable character, a bundle of contradictions and half-smothered passions. Deceptively tiny and diaphanous, Schmidt performs like lace curtains set ablaze.

Much Ado About Nothing (through April 6 at the Duke on 42nd)

Mad Men's (and Game of Thrones's) Maggie Siff and Brideshead Revisited's Jonathan Cake joust delightfully in a mostly solid, sweetly simple, gently cheering Much Ado About Nothing from director Arin Arbus and Theater for a New Audience. Siff follows up (but doesn't repeat) her take-no-shit Kate from last year's Taming of the Shrew — and meets her goofball prince-charming in Benedick, whom Cake interprets as a kind of gracefully aging proto-hipster, the kind of guy who's taking improv classes at 40 to keep up with his quick-witted lady-love. There’s a little transatlantic tension in their interplay, a bit of Grant Hepburn, but some Tracy Hepburn, too. A juicy, earthy pair, this Beatrice and Benedick: a couple of grownups who are so far ahead of the reckless young lovers around them, they’ve forgotten how far behind they’ve fallen in their own self-sabotaged love-lives. Shakespeare furnishes us with plenty of young lovers and a few old ones; but Beatrice and Benedick have history. They’ve screwed each other over once; this is their second bite at the apple. Siff and Cake make that bite count.

Photo: Sandra Coudert