Confined to a single Polish flat, Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist explores the life of Maria, convincingly played by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, who lives alone surrounded by photos of family members who live in the United States. Things get interesting when a twenty-something American cousin named David (Nik Crawford) comes to visit her and work on revisions for the book he owes his publisher.
But the pot-smoking and procrastinating David isn’t doing much work, and Maria is frustrated with him at every turn. She wants him to spend time with him, since he is one of the few family members that she sees, but her loneliness is the heavy weight that bears down on the entire play, made even more excruciating by the knowledge of the violence and cruelty that ripped her Jewish family apart during World War II. Indeed, she’s paid a high price for survival, and part of the play’s intrigue is finding out what “really” happened to her and her family during the war.
Directed by Leslie Swackhamer, this play demands your close attention as it builds to Maria’s confession that explains everything at the end of the play. In the meantime, there is a lot of banter between Maria and David, who is insufferable as a self-absorbed and rude writer who has had some early success with a Young Adult novel but seems a far cry himself from adulthood. Bratty and ungrateful, his disrespect and lack of regard for Maria and her hospitality is hard to watch. There are some funny lines, but it forces you to wonder about the rules for how you treat “family.”
David says that “blood” doesn’t mean much to him, and that will be tested later in the play. As Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin notes, “The Revisionist is about family. But on a deeper level it is about disconnection, disconnection from self, disconnection from truth, disconnection from others.” The characters’ attempts to connect, even with qualifications and complications, are the fuel that drives their actions. In the end, there is a warping of history for personal connection, and the audience is left with the feeling that while some decisions are ethically wrong, the brutal experiences of World War II make certain decisions human and understandable, if objectionable. It’s a lot to chew on.
Part of Maria’s life is receiving help from Zenon, a large and somewhat intimidating taxi driver played by Steve Irish. All of his lines are delivered in Polish. While I greatly admire the authenticity of this move and how it gives insight into what David experiences being around Maria and Zenon—literally being unable to understand them—the gimmick started to grate on my nerves. Polish may indeed be one of the hardest languages to learn—and kudos to the actors for doing so—but it didn’t aid the trajectory of the play except to sprinkle in some comic relief now and then with lines that exploited the language barriers. I will say that this does dramatically highlight the notion of things being lost in translation and lost in history, an important theme in this work. But David is so insufferable, it feels as if there is no language school in the world that could make him truly understand Maria.
With this play coinciding with the week of Yom Hashoah and remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust, we are fortunate to live in a city with theater that reminds us to never forget the atrocities that befell the people that Jesse Eisenberg dramatizes in The Revisionist. In an age where every kind of cultural appropriation is an object of criticism, audiences will be surprised at Maria’s own revisionist history, and the most important aspect of this play is how you think about it when it is all over.
Thru April 22. Tickets from $25. Performed at Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, 5601 S. Braeswood. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.