Jesse Eisenberg has written himself a juicy acting role in “Asuncion” as an idealistic social reformer whose intellectual pretensions make him the exact opposite of Mark Zuckerberg, the scary-cool Facebook founder Eisenberg played in “The Social Network.” Scribe throws this young jerk a neat theatrical curve when he introduces him and his smug roommate to a Filipina who challenges their patronizing assumptions about class and ethnic identity. But Eisenberg puts no further demands on his characters, leaving them frozen in a sitcom plot that goes nowhere.
Helmer Kip Fagan is comfortable with the louche vibe of downtown theater, and that easy confidence shows itself in this production for Rattlestick. Although play is set in an upstate college town, John McDermott’s slovenly student apartment and Jessica Pabst’s casual-chic rags would fit right into the NYU-nation in the East Village.
Eisenberg might not have a clue about plotting, but he has a facile comic skill for drawing eccentric characters and putting them in unhealthy relationships. He just doesn’t know where to go next.
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Roommates Edgar (Eisenberg) and Vinny (Justin Bartha of “Hangover” fame) have one of those lethal associations. Vinny is an advanced graduate student in Black Studies who grossly over-identifies with his academic thesis. Edgar is a self-anointed reformer who romanticizes poverty and blindly takes up social causes he knows nothing about.
Bartha is plenty funny giving Vinny up to Pan African blues ecstasy while stoned. (“You got some African shit right here!”) Eisenberg has a terrific moment when Edgar apologizes for the gang kids who beat him bloody and stole his wallet. (“They’re oppressed by everything.”) Both thesps easily find the comfort zone where their insecure characters draw strength from their sadomasochistic friendship.
The amusing if creepy relationship between these mutually needy roommates is thrown off-balance when Edgar’s big brother, Stuart (Remy Auberjonois, as overbearing as big brothers are wont to be), drops off his beautiful Filipina bride, Asuncion (a blithe spirit in Camille Mana’s animated perf), and takes off on some undisclosed errand.
Asuncion is flakier than phyllo dough, which leaves Vinny and Edgar free to make of her what they will. Getting into her groove, Vinny just wants to have fun with her, while Edgar, who has been led to believe she’s a mail-order bride, projects all his dimwitted social views on her.
But nothing dramatic comes of this awkward threesome. Because Asuncion is such an airhead, she becomes the play’s fatal flaw, too vacuous to function as a proper catalyst and too shallow to hold the stage on her own. And that leaves Edgar and Vinny stuck in their caricatured roles, making funny talk but saying nothing of consequence.