By Karen Isaacs
The Revisionist by Jesse Eisenberg is a frustrating play though Playhouse on Park is giving us a good production of this puzzling work through April 29.
It seems so promising; a young writer in the midst of a writer’s block and deadline pressure visits an elderly cousin in Poland whom he has never really met and knows little about. How will they change? What will the young man learn?
That wee leave with almost same the questions, is the frustrating part.
The play opens with Maria (played beautifully by Cecelia Riddett) watching CNN on her television in her apartment in Poland. The doorbells rings, and standing there is David, an American cousin in his late 20s. The relationship does not start smoothly; she seems upset he is late (his plane was delayed), he is annoyed that she keeps talking while he wants to put down his bags (why doesn’t he), and when she offers him the food she kept warm, he declares he doesn’t eat chicken, that he is a vegetarian.
Once we see him in the room, we can deduce that he has some sort of drugs (crack?) in his luggage hidden in a sock and that he is opening the window to be able to smoke it. He immediately comes across as both immature and somewhat of a jerk.
The play continues through the next 5 days or so; however, the relationship does not seem to improve. Maria wants to show him around the city (Szczecin) and spend time with him. He pleads deadline pressure; his book was due six weeks ago and his publisher wants revisions. But in reality, he appears to spend most the time sleeping, playing computer games and getting high.
Maria is amazed he doesn’t know all about his extended family; she does and has photos of them all throughout the apartment. She tries tell him about them, names, ages, professions, children and more. He is amazed that his grandfather calls her most Sundays.
When he initially does as a question about her experiences in WWII (the family is Jewish), she is very flustered but later on tells the story.
In a sense, this is a story of people revising their lives. David does it initially when he projects himself as a successful author of a young adult novel, but the truth is that he is not that good and is having a major writing block/crisis.
Maria is more substantially revising the story of life in ways that become clear as the play progresses. A widow who has no children, she lives vicariously through the lives of these American relatives, almost all of whom she has never met.
Even, Zenon the fortyish taxi driver who does errands for Maria is revising his life. His mother died and he has transferred one of their rituals to Maria. It is unclear why this particular ritual was created; it is just odd enough that you keep expecting it to have meaning.
The telephone keeps ringing in the apartment, and Maria always answers, speaks for a minute or so in Polish and then hangs up. She says these are solicitors for phony charities for blind people, but you begin to wonder if that is so. It infuriates David because it often interrupts conversations or disturbs him. He keeps urging her not to answer. Yet there is no real resolution to this. Are they really solicitations? Or is the whole routine, just a ploy to set up the ending?
What could have been an interesting intergenerational story and a probing of how people survived WWII becomes instead just another superficial story.
Emily Nichols has created a set that includes all the rooms in the apartment – the kitchen, living room, David’s bedroom and the hallway. It allows you to see everything that is going on.
This plays lives and dies on the performances – off-Broadway it was Vanessa Redgrave as Maria and the author (who is a well-known actor) as David. Here the actors may be less well known but they bring commitment to their characters. Cecelia Riddett brings a dignity to Maria that, despite some of her more annoying characteristics, lets you understand her and empathize. She also maintains an accent that to my untutored ear, seems authentic as does her Polish. Carl Howell has the difficult task of trying to help us understand David as more than just a free-loading, self-absorbed jerk. That he succeeds as much as he does, is a credit to his performance. Sebastian Buczyk plays Zenon, the taxi driver/friend. This is a less developed role that Buczyk does as much with as he can.
Director Sasha Bratt has done a good job in both keeping the playing moving, getting the laughs (there are some) and helping the performers find nuggets of truth in their characters.
For tickets to The Revisionist, call 860-523-5900 or visit Playhouse on Park.