Jesse Eisenberg is so awful toward Vanessa Redgrave at the Cherry Lane Theatre that, really, it's hard to separate the actors from their characters. Then again, since Eisenberg also wrote the play, "The Revisionist," which lured this acting treasure to the beloved 180-seat Village playhouse to co-star with him, it seems fair to blame him for both the appalling behavior of his character and for this enormous waste of opportunity.
Eisenberg plays David, a New York brat with a book deadline, who has traveled all the way to his great-aunt Maria's tiny flat in Poland to revise his manuscript without distraction. Even if this made a bit of sense, which it does not, we are expected to care about any human being who would arrive late from the airport without apology, ignore the dinner an elderly woman has prepared, then closes himself in the nicest room in the place to wear his shoes on the bed, contemplate his muse and get stoned.
Maria, whom he has never met, thinks he came to visit. Naturally she has grave war memories, a desperate need for family and, too long into the hour and 45-minute evening, a wrenching secret to share. Redgrave, at least as magnificent up close as in a big theater, lets us watch as almost impish excitement turns to disappointment and, finally, some kind of resignation.
With Eisenberg as the unbelievably ungracious and oblivious jerk, however, Redgrave has nothing solid enough to counterbalance her emotional weight. Director Kip Fagan never finds the shadings that could have made this feel like a real relationship, and I'm told by a native that the set has no resemblance to a Polish apartment. Redgrave does have a few heartwarming scenes in Polish with a friend, a cabdriver, portrayed by the always-good Daniel Oreskes. But surely, in all of New York, a Polish-speaking actor could have been found.
Eisenberg, whose merciless portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" seemed even more real than the real guy, had a far more canny work, "Asuncion," produced by this same Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2011. In a program note, Redgrave declared being "immensely excited" by the script, which she accepted as soon as she read it. Note to playwrights: please, send her better scripts.
WHAT "The Revisionist"
WHERE Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., Manhattan
INFO $85; 866-811-4111; the revisionistplay.com
BOTTOM LINE A magnificent Redgrave is a terrible thing to waste