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Deanna Dunagan and Seamus Mulcahy in 'The Revisionist' by Jesse Eisenberg at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (photo by Kevin Parry)
Deanna Dunagan and Seamus Mulcahy in ‘The Revisionist’ by Jesse Eisenberg at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (photo by Kevin Parry)

The Revisionist

By Bob Verini
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Through April 17

One might have expected that accomplished actor but novice playwright Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, Batman v Superman) would be more adept at creating characters for The Revisionist than knowing what to do with them. Sure enough, the people who inhabit the Polish apartment Eisenberg has chosen for his setting — an elderly Holocaust survivor with a secret and her young American novelist cousin with an attitude — are considerably more involving than the behavior he’s invented for them as they rattle around those four walls. Indeed, by the end of this intermission-less 105 minutes, I was rather surprised that Vanessa Redgrave had been talked into playing the main female role opposite Eisenberg himself for the Off-Broadway premiere, and that the Wallis Annenberg Center had chosen this flimsy vehicle for a gala opening here. Eisenberg’s written more since, but on the strength of this one, he would do well to hang onto his day job.

Come to that, the characters are vigorous but hardly original. Maria (Deanna Dunagan) is a slightly less prickly variation on the old lady Neil Simon crafted for his Pulitzer-winning Lost in Yonkers. You know the type: proud and stoic, stubbornly European, and given to blurting out candid judgments heedless of their effect on the recipient. Her truth-telling is bound to rub cousin David (Seamus Mulcahy) the wrong way, for he is utterly defensive about his writing; when she calls his one published work “a book for kids,” he takes pains to correct her: “It’s a young adult novel.” Moreover, he could be the worst houseguest ever — ungracious and unwilling to thank her for (or even notice) her kinder gestures.

In short, the self-absorbed David is every character Jesse Eisenberg has essayed to date, on screen.

So, okay, the characters are derivative. Then you have to factor in the unlikelihood of the premise: that clueless, feckless David has had to travel halfway across the world to mooch on a relative he’s never met in order to avoid distractions and make overdue revisions on his new sci-fi opus. Would this clod bother to go to all that trouble? Improbable, but that’s the situation out of which the play is born.

Or is it? As the minutes tick by, David’s selfish attitudes keep getting expressed again and again, while Maria shows infinite patience, and we start to realize the utter absence of a here and now. Nothing’s happening between these two characters. They’re not affecting each other, touching each other, changing each other. (It doesn’t help that not long ago local stages played host to Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, in which a young interloper crashes with an elderly relative and the sparks do fly; the people are affected.)

It is a pleasure to see Dunagan again after her Tony-winning tour de force as Vi, the role she created in August: Osage County. Here, she uses a very different set of actor muscles. Mulcahy does a creditable Eisenberg impression and manages to evoke a little more empathy and humanity than is there in the writing. And in the small role (largely included for exposition purposes) of a local friend of Maria’s, Ilia Volok shines. He, along with director Robin Larsen, provide a modicum of authenticity in a script that fundamentally lacks that all-important quality.

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; Tues-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; through April 17. 310-746-5000 or Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.