See Maria, a 78-year-old Polish woman, grimace as she tries tofu for the first time. Sit back as she convinces longtime friend Zenon that "asshole" is really the English word for computer, or tells visiting cousin David matter-of-factly that he has "ugly eyes," just like hers.
Such are the peculiar pleasures of watching the extraordinary Vanessa Redgrave, winner of both a Tony and an Academy Award, display her too-rarely-used comic gifts in Jesse Eisenberg's new play, The Revisionist, being presented by the Rattlestick Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Throughout this 100-minute work, directed with sitcom pacing by Kip Fagan, Redgrave takes the most banal moments and turns them into jewels with her peerless timing and expressive face. Even the utterance of the word "oh" becomes a master class in acting.
But there's a dark side to this work. Maria is a widowed Holocaust survivor who is overjoyed that David (played by Eisenberg, best known for his portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), her twentysomething distant cousin from America, has finally come to Poland. He's there, however, not so much to see Maria as to escape. Weeks behind on revising his second novel, David claims he gets too distracted in his native New York to finish the task. In actuality, his addiction to marijuana, possible ADHD, and, above all, fear of failure, are the true culprits, and flying halfway across the globe does nothing to alleviate the situation.
Worse still, Maria has been so desperate to connect with family that she overwhelms David from the minute he arrives in her small flat (perfectly realized by John McDermott), tearing his airline ticket from his hand and placing it on the refrigerator (so it won't get lost) and insisting on feeding him a dinner he has no interest in. And David is, at least on the surface, a selfish, narcissistic young man who practically defines the term "bad houseguest," proving himself ungrateful for many Maria's kindnesses. He is disrespectful to Zenon (the excellent Daniel Oreskes), a middle-aged taxi driver who practically treats Maria as a surrogate mother, and takes little interest in the family history she is so anxious to share.
Of course, as in plays of this nature--such as Amy Herzog's far superior 4000 Miles--the pair will eventually bond in a few short days, thanks in part, in this case, to generous helpings of vodka used to wash down the aforementioned tofu. The alcohol also finally aids Maria in doing what she has wanted to since David's arrival--confess her long-held secret. And, sure enough, it's a bit of a doozy. True, it's nothing like the ones in Sophie's Choice or Red Dog Howls, but it's an effective plot turn nonetheless, and David's reaction to it transforms the play, albeit a tad too abruptly, in its final scenes. (If you really feel like trying to guess what Maria's been hiding for 70 years, consider the play's title.)
If The Revisionist doesn't quite have the impact it should,the blame belongs mostly in Eisenberg's hands. As David confesses a nightmare of being in a fallen elevator, asks Maria repeatedly if he's a terrible person, or even offhandedly relates his distance from his immediate family, we are clearly meant to see the "lost boy" underneath the gruff exterior, yet Eisenberg gives such a surprisingly charmless performance that whatever sympathy we might feel evaporates the second after we feel it.
One must applaud Eisenberg for presenting Redgrave, as well as audiences, with the delicious gift of the role of Maria. But while The Revisionist goes down easily enough, once you've swallowed it, you may wish that you could have exchanged it for something more substantial.