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Chinglish

Asuncion

Jesse Eisenberg's comedy about a clueless blogger offers considerable charms and fine performances.

By New York City
Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha in Asuncion
(© Sandra Coudert)
Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha in Asuncion
(© Sandra Coudert)
Asuncion is an over-the-top comedy of P.C. manners written by and starring Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg, now being presented by the Rattlestick Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Theatre, While the piece has its considerable charms, including Eisenberg's fine ear for dialogue, the two-act play's promise ultimately fizzles.

Edgar (Eisenberg), a political blogger of sorts, is struggling to find a resonant story when his older, financially successful brother, Stuart (Remy Auberjonois), drops by his Binghamton apartment with surprising news: he recently got hitched to a younger Filipina woman, Asuncion (Camille Mana). Moreover, for unknown reasons, Stuart needs to leave her with Edgar and his roommate Vinny (Justin Bartha) for a few days while he attends to some business.

It's a flimsy premise, to be sure, but it does create a certain momentum for the first act. Edgar becomes immediately convinced that his brother "acquired" Asuncion through some kind of sex slavery operation simply because of her race and knowing that they met on the Internet.

Convinced that her true story is worthy of publication, he records her answers to a series of questions without asking her about her past directly, because as he states, "you can't ask a victim" about her oppressor.

Eisenberg has a great energy on stage, and displays a natural sense of interplay with Bartha. Vinny, a college professor who quotes Malcolm X and has posters of African leaders hanging in the living room they share, is practically a walking parody. And while Bartha gets laughs simply by prancing around on stage in his tribal robe, it's also clear that Vinny is smart enough to realize that Edgar is completely off-base in his assumptions about their new houseguest.

It's clear that Eisenberg is interested in exploring the ignorant and potentially dangerous assumptions that we can make about people from other cultures; one of the play's running jokes is that Edger continues to confuse Asuncion's native country with Cambodia, a country he "accidentally visited" for a few days. But by placing his character on such an extreme end of the spectrum, we can only really laugh at him as a clown instead of recognize a part of ourselves in him.

Director Kip Fagan keeps a brisk pacing throughout, but it's not enough to keep the play from imploding on itself when many strands of the story fail to pay off in the second act, including the nature of Stuart's mysterious business, and the potentially deeper nature of Edgar and Vinny's relationship.

And while the most interesting scenes in Asuncion, both comically and dramatically, stem from a profound miscommunication, more often than not this gap in understanding feels like a contrived dramatic device instead of the manifestation of organic human emotion.


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