Legit Review: Redgrave Rivets 'Revisionist'

Watching Vanessa Redgrave submerge herself in a role is a little like watching someone drown, so total is her immersion into character. Her self-sacrifice in this Rattlestick presentation of “The Revisionist” is not in vain, because scribe-thesp Jesse Eisenberg has written her a worthy alter-ego as a Holocaust survivor. The scribe based the character on a distant relation and here takes the part of a callow American youth who hopes to rid himself of writer’s block by staying with his cousin in Poland. The kid’s too much of a jerk and the situation too contrived … but, ah, that Redgrave!

Although it’s hard to tear your eyes from Redgrave, John McDermott’s realistically cluttered set is carefully designed for distraction. Like the dated furniture, open shelving and exposed closets are realistic touches for a small apartment in a Polish city on the Baltic Sea. But the most telling detail is the groupings of family photographs, especially the obviously precious selection hanging over the neatly made bed.

If there’s any doubt that a lonely old woman lives here, it’s made clear in the enthusiastic way that Maria (Redgrave) welcomes David (Eisenberg), a young cousin from New York, into her home. The look she gives this sullen kid, after coaxing him out from under his hoodie, is rapturous, and her attempts to talk to him in her fractured English are genuinely touching, even when they’re funny.  (“My English is sometimes like cows.”)

In anticipation of David’s visit, Maria has given up her bedroom, cooked him a chicken (a great sacrifice for her, we later learn), and arranged for a city tour with her taxi-driver friend, Zenon, a very rough diamond, indeed, in Daniel Oreskes’ sweet and scary perf. But although the old woman’s fussing can be a bit stifling, David’s rudeness is inexcusable. This kid is cold! He turns his nose up at the chicken (he’s a vegetarian), brushes off her inquiries into his life, and can’t even be bothered to pass on the family news she’s dying to hear.

All this visitor wants to do is keep to “his” room, smoke hashish, and brood over the unfinished manuscript he has brought with him. Eisenberg has had plenty of experience (in his own plays, as well as in high-profile movies like “The Social Network”) playing brainy, twitchy, narcissistic 20-somethings. But for some reason, here he seems to feel that he should flagellate himself to make amends for all those selfish brats.

Although David is too insensitive to notice, Maria has a terrible secret — and no one to share it with.  The scribe eventually gets to it, in a well-written, emotionally wrenching scene that helmer Kip Fagan handles with admirable restraint. It’s uncanny the way that Redgrave even manages to subdue her strong physical features for this death-defying scene. That straight spine, the generous hands, those penetrating eyes — everything comes under the control of that mesmerizing voice.

For once in his selfish life, even David comes under the spell of Maria’s truth-telling.  But by then, it’s just too late for this ugly American child.

(Cherry Lane Theater; 179 seats; $86 top)

A Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production, by special arrangement with the Cherry Lane Theater, of a play in one act by Jesse Eisenberg. Directed by Kip Fagan.

Set, John McDermott; costumes, Jessica Pabst; lighting, Matt Frey; sound, Bart Fasbender; props, Andrew Diaz; production stage manager, Eugenia Furneaux. Opened Feb. 28, 2013. Reviewed Feb. 23. Running time: ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.

Maria — Vanessa Redgrave

David — Jesse Eisenberg

Zenon —  Daniel Oreskes

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