Off Broadway Theater Review: ASUNCION (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater @ Cherry Lane)

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by Thomas Antoinne on October 28, 2011

in Theater-New York

ASUNCION DESCENDING

Conventional wisdom in Hollywood says that after you get an Oscar nomination, for the next five years everyone will return your phone calls.  It seems Jesse Eisenberg has decided to parlay his Oscar clout into a production of Asuncion, a play he wrote and stars in at the Cherry Lane Theatre produced by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Asuncion is about two roommates, Vinnie and Edgar, who have a complicated relationship.  Vinnie takes care of Edgar, who lacks social skills, and Asuncion by Jesse Eisenberg – directed by Kip Fagen – at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater @ Cherry Lane – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneEdgar is devoted to pleasing Vinnie.  When they agree to take in Asuncion, Edgar’s new Filipina sister-in-law, while his brother Stuart straightens out an unpleasant legal situation, Edgar wrongly assumes Asuncion is a sex slave.  Mayhem ensues.  Instead of following a farce template, Eisenberg chooses a strange hybrid of Woody Allen by way of Adam Rapp.  The result is an unsatisfying mess of a vanity project with a few scattered laughs.  While Asuncion is framed as a story about an intricate relationship between two friends, we’re never quite clear why they need each other, what they get from each other, or why they stay together.

Asuncion by Jesse Eisenberg – directed by Kip Fagen – at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater @ Cherry Lane – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneTheatres today are always on the lookout for comedies with four characters on a unit set.  Eisenberg the Playwright delivers just that.  And only that.  There are four characters and a decent unit set designed by John McDermott.  If only Eisenberg had designed a decent script.  Relationships are incoherently drawn, the plot has little-to-nothing at stake, and omnipresent homoerotic overtones are never fully processed.  Also, if I ever see another play produced by Rattlestick that includes excessive drug use, I’ll personally lead the intervention.  In the end, it’s neither the drugs nor the sexual haziness but a script lacking in basic dramaturgy that is at fault.

Asuncion by Jesse Eisenberg – directed by Kip Fagen – at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater @ Cherry Lane – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneEisenberg the Actor is a bit more successful than Eisenberg the Playwright.  There’s no new information about his acting range.  He does a variation of his trademark sensitive intellectual with no social skills.  He’s always believable, if a bit overly mannered.  Unfortunately, Eisenberg the Actor doesn’t have the chops to embrace the challenges of being a leading man in live theatre.  While a skillful film director and editing staff can fix imperfect acting choices in post-production, the stage is not so forgiving.  In the end, Eisenberg’s redundant gestures become tiresome and his speech rhythms annoying.

Asuncion by Jesse Eisenberg – directed by Kip Fagen – at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater @ Cherry Lane – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneThe other actors have less to do and fare much better.  Remy Auberjonois plays brother Stuart with toughness and humor.  Camille Mana’s Asuncion is lovely, light-hearted, and sweet.  However, one never gets the feeling she could have been confused for a sex worker.  Justin Bartha, as Vinny the roommate, is the strongest actor in the cast.  He makes consistently dependable acting choices and has solid chemistry with Eisenberg.  But for a play like Asuncion to work well, the complex shifts in Edgar and Vinnie’s relationship need to be clearly articulated in the text, not sold by a competent acting ensemble.

It doesn’t look like director Kip Fagen was up to the challenge of giving his star dramaturgical notes and at the same time guiding him towards a fully realized performance.  Asuncion by Jesse Eisenberg – directed by Kip Fagen – at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater @ Cherry Lane – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneToo often the stage is cluttered with activity and acting choices that only amplify the untidy choices in the writing.  One of Fagen’s strategies is to have the actors speak at screwball comedy velocity.  The result is successful only in that we have to work so hard catching up the meaning of the words that we hardly have time to ponder the lack of meaning in the play.

The Cherry Lane Theatre is filled with memorabilia of its glorious past.  Walking by posters of Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee’s Cherry Lane Theatre premieres, I was reminded of the ground-breaking work that was once done on its stage.  To suffer through Eisenberg’s Asuncion, a play completely lacking in distinction, it doesn’t break ground; it breaks your heart.

Photos by Sandra Coudert

Asuncion
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater @ Cherry Lane
scheduled to end on November 27
for tickets, visit http://www.rattlestick.org/
EXTENDED THROUGH DECEMBER 18, 2011

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