nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
October 23, 2011
You know what they say about assumptions. I assumed, wrongly of course, that Jesse Eisenberg was the latest Hollywood actor to write a play and was lucky enough that a well-regarded non-profit jumped at the opportunity to produce it. It wasn’t until I read a variety of articles that I realized that Rattlestick Playwrights Theater promised Eisenberg this slot a few years ago, before he shot to fame as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and added the prefix “Academy Award nominee” to his name.
In his comedy Asuncion, now at the Cherry Lane Theater, Eisenberg plays Edgar, a big-talking liberal blogger who assumes that his new sister-in-law is either a mail-order bride or some kind of sex slave. In Edgar’s mind, it’s simple. Why else would his brother, a wealthy stock trader in New York City, marry the gorgeous Filipina woman for whom the play is named? Even further, why would his brother practically abandon her on the doorstep of the apartment Edgar shares with Vinny, a black studies scholar, in order to finish up some secret business?
The painfully neurotic Edgar, who believes that doing nothing makes him less guilty than doing anything, believes that Asuncion’s life is the story that will get him recognition. Presuming that she grew up in the slums and is actually a sex worker, he begins quizzing her about every aspect of her life. Except about one crucial element, of which he’s too afraid to ask.
Asuncion is a very funny, respectable first play, but it’s not a great one. Primarily, it lacks a certain amount of development in the most interesting relationship, Edgar’s and Vinny’s (played by Justin Bartha). Edgar and Vinny aren’t roommates; Edgar sleeps on a beanbag chair on the floor of Vinny’s cluttered, off-campus apartment in Binghamton. Vinny is Edgar’s de-facto best friend and former teacher’s assistant. Their interaction is more-or-less master/slave. Edgar cleans the bathroom, buys Vinny lunch and dinner, and knows the exact temperature at which Vinny likes his tap water. That Vinny is of indeterminate sexuality adds another dimension, especially in the second act, during an LSD trip that suddenly turns violent.
Bartha’s choices are impressively bold throughout, suggesting from the very beginning that their essentially co-dependent relationship may stem from Vinny’s feelings for Edgar, though they’re clearly unreciprocated. Eisenberg’s self-deprecating and thoroughly endearing performance brought to mind shades of Woody Allen. Remy Auberjonois is flawless as Edgar’s callous and sarcastic brother. The real discovery is Camille Mana, supremely delightful in her New York debut as the well-intentioned and fairly naïve Asuncion, who gives the character more humanity than is actually written.
Precisely why Asuncion is sent to live with the pair is a practically glossed-over detail, and a significant cop out (though admittedly, I’d be similarly complaining if she actually turned out to be a sex worker). And though the play goes on for one scene too long, the four excellent performances and Kip Fagan’s first-rate staging help it zoom along with the speed, energy and intensity of a race car.
With a few rewrites, Asuncion could work like gangbusters. Still, warts and all, it’s a more-impressive playwriting debut by a relatively well-known actor than a lot of others in recent memory. And that’s not an assumption.