There is a moment in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—possibly the pinnacle of white liberal guilt—in which Agee accidentally startles a young Black couple: “I was trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so, smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ … The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet.”
Edgar, the protagonist in Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliant new play Asuncion, seems to have taken a page from Agee. In the first scene, he enters his apartment, bloodied from a mugging but quick to apologize for his attackers: “They’re oppressed by everything … I would punch me too!” Eisenberg has already established himself as the master of the stammer, but here he puts it to excellent use; Edgar is embarrassed by his own existence, constantly ready to heap self-loathing onto himself and totally ignorant to the fact that his viciously politically correct consciousness is dehumanizing to those he pities. His roommate, Vinny (Justin Bartha), is a graduate student in Black Studies, a cruel, manipulative jerk who simultaneously exploits Edgar while making him feel guilty for sleeping on his floor. He knows exactly which buttons to push, and occasionally delights in making vaguely racist comments and watching his buddy squirm. But the play really begins when Edgar’s Wall Street brother, Stuart (Remy Auberjonois), drops off his new wife, the Filipina Asuncion (Camille Mana), to stay with them for a week or so. Edgar immediately projects victimhood on the amiable young woman; he assumes she is a sex slave and passionately begins work on a “triptych” tentatively titled Sarah’s Story: From the Slums of the Philippines to the Slums of Humanity (he has changed her name for “anonymity’s sake”).
In one of Shakespeare’s most important scenes, Hamlet tells his players that the duty of art is “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.” Asuncion, more than any new play I have seen in years, succeeds in doing this; it is a damning but hysterical indictment of liberal guilt, one whose verisimilitude makes it occasionally difficult to watch. Edgar’s endless insistence, for example, that he “was in Cambodia” to blog the horrors of the third world, as if this gives him moral impunity, echoes many a semester abroad; the joke, of course, is that nobody in the cast is from or cares about Cambodia, and though Edgar makes fun of how “everybody just lumps every country that’s not America into one thing,” he continues to ignore Asuncion’s insistence that she is Filipina and knows nothing about the Khmer Rouge. The fact that Stuart—whose “bloody money” Edgar refuses—emerges as the most sympathetic and least racist American in the cast is particularly pertinent at a time when young, self-righteous liberals are working to demonize an entire industry.
But to characterize Asuncion as simply a satire of the overeducated, hyper-anxious upper class is to ignore the powerful human drama that overwhelms its second half. In many ways, it resembles some of the most important plays of the fifties and sixties—John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? come immediately to mind. Because at its center is the love story—truly—of Edgar and Vinny, two people whose power dynamics appear awful but who need each other dearly; Edgar needs to be constantly beat down in order to reaffirm both his opinion of the world and his opinion of himself, while Vinny needs an idolizing punching bag. By the end of the play, we realize there is a tenderness between these two that has been drowned out by all the shouting; it is easy to forget that in the play’s first few minutes, Vinny lovingly asks Edgar as he cleans his wounds, “Jesus, what am I going to do with you?”
Simply put, Asuncion is probably the best thing you’ll see right now on the New York stage.