David (Jesse Eisenberg), the protagonist of Mr. Eisenberg’s new play, bears some resemblance to Edgar, the part he played in Asuncion, his first work for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: he is an entitled, pot smoking vegetarian whose condescension does not prevent him from prefacing every sentence with, “Sorry.” But unlike Edgar, David is not particularly sympathetic. Edgar was a misguided but generally good-hearted kid; one could imagine that after a good talking to, he would see his liberalism as a kind of reverse White Man’s Burden. But about halfway through The Revisionist, when David asks his Polish second cousin, Maria (Vanessa Redgrave), “Am I terrible person?” and she answers in the affirmative, he refuses to accept it.
David has come to stay with Maria in Szczecin to revise his novel, the follow-up to a young adult “anti-fascist allegory,” The Running of the Bulls. As he explains, the talking bulls “were representative of the oppressed populace under General Franco … the birthday party is a metaphor for stunted growth … [and] the jail is a metaphor for—for Spanish jail.” In his time with Maria, a Holocaust survivor who revised her biography after the war, David is exposed as an irritable, spoiled brat. When she prepares chicken for him on his first night, he tells her, “I don’t eat flesh that was once alive.” Later, when defending a “play” he performed as a toddler, he says, “Well, with limited resources, it’s difficult to fully realize a vision.” But while The Revisionist is very funny, Mr. Eisenberg doesn’t have the same love for David that he had for Edgar. This play is bitterer, more contemptuous, and while certainly a comedic success, it leaves us with the coppery taste of blood in our mouths.
Furthermore, casting Ms. Redgrave as a Holocaust survivor makes about as much sense as casting Avigdor Liberman as a victim of the Kafr Qasim massacre—this is a woman, after all, who speaks about Nazi Germany and Israel in the same terms—but in The Revisionist there is no mention of “Zionist hoodlums,” possibly because the last one, Meyer Lansky, died in 1983, forty years after most of his colleagues shuffled off this mortal coil and six years after Ms. Redgrave inaugurated her popular equivocation of masking antisemitism with anti-Zionism. Perhaps this is a moot or even an hysterical point; perhaps we should judge her on her acting alone and not on her politics. But for many of us, Ms. Redgrave’s face is one of Jew hatred and her voice (and bank account) one that lends support to terrorism—and it hardly needs saying, except to her, that terrorism is as anti-Palestinian as it is anti-Zionist. Actors are not divorced from their public personalities—Brad Pitt’s stardom is as essential to his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as his acting—and Ms. Redgrave cannot shed decades of hatred by throwing a cynical bone to her philosemitic audience.
Still, the truth is that she is an excellent actor. She nails the Old World Jewishisms (“This is son of Helen”) and at one point, while not-so-politely hiding her disgust with the tofu she has bought for David, she gets Mr. Eisenberg to crack an out of character smile. Mr. Eisenberg, too, is terrific; he has a nervous physicality—always touching his hair or playing with his fingers—that is rarely showcased onscreen.
The sophomore slump is not uncommon. Asuncion, though poorly received, was in fact a brilliant play with a unique voice and would be difficult to follow up. The Revisionist has its weaknesses, but it displays a wonderful comedic sensibility, and I have no doubt that in the future Mr. Eisenberg’s work will be more dramatically robust.