The Revisionist Crawls Along To Its Climax

Nik Crawford and Cristine McMurdo-Wallis in The Revisionists
Nik Crawford and Cristine McMurdo-Wallis in The Revisionists Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Family means different things to different people. For some, it’s a commodity to be used when needed. For others, it’s the most precious thing imaginable, the centering point of life. So what happens when two people who have different feelings about the value of family come together?

This is the question posed in actor-writer Jesse Eisenberg’s play, The Revisionist, a two-hour, intermissionless show that unfolds like an overly long, often funny, splendidly performed, but ultimately meandering set-up for a big reveal that’s meant to upend what family means. The kind of show that elicits an OK sure, rather than a wow.

David (Nik Crawford affecting superb Millennial slouching) is a 20-something pompous, self-absorbed, ill-mannered writer struggling to revise his new novel. His first book did OK (even if The NY Times didn’t like it) but his editor thinks this latest one needs a total rethink. Unable to get work done at home (too many distractions), David flies all the way to Poland to stay with his elderly distant cousin Maria (a show-stopping Cristine McMurdo-Wallis).

Maria, whose family was killed in the Holocaust, is thrilled to have David come stay. She may never have met him before, but his photo is all over her small but cozy, tchotchke-filled somewhat musty flat (rendered in gorgeous detail by Scenic Designer, Kimberly V. Powers and Properties Designer, Jodi Bobrovsky). Not just David’s photo, mind you, but pictures of all her North American relatives. Dozens upon dozens of them, people only known to her by name and story, but cherished members of her family nonetheless. After all, widowed, and with no family to speak of thanks to the camps, what other clan does Maria have to belong to?

Within seconds of his arrival, it’s obvious that David doesn’t share Maria’s feelings of family above all. While she’s been worried sick about his lateness, he brushes her off saying his flight was late with a dismissive shrug. While she has stayed up and prepared a chicken dinner for him, he blows off her efforts in order to smoke weed in his room. While she’s hoping that they can spend some time together during his visit (she’s taken a week off from her volunteer work during his stay), he tells her that he’s only there to work and hasn’t time to go on the sightseeing tour she’s arranged. No time to even help her grocery shop for the special food he demands (vegetarian of course.)

As such, we spend the majority of the play wanting to punch David in the face. He’s rude. He’s not as smart or talented as he wants everyone to believe he is. He lifts not one finger to help. And worst of all, it’s not like he’s even working on his book. In other words, Eisenberg has written David as the ultimate Millennial cliché and frankly, it’s a bore, despite Crawford using every trick he has to make it seem fresh and Director Leslie Swackhammer dialing down the obnoxious factor as much as possible.

Thankfully though, Maria is there to save the play. While David is expected, Maria is a surprise. Here Eisenberg gives us a character that’s full of contradictions, swinging emotions and a way with words that can wrap a compliment and insult all into one hysterically efficient package. “Look at your eyes,” Maria says to David. “They are like mine. Blue but ugly”. More bitingly for David, Maria has read his first book, didn’t like it much and tells him so. Yet she’s lovingly has framed his not so great NY Times review (“a relative of mine gets mentioned in The NY Times!” she says proudly) and asks if he would autograph it.

It’s not that Maria isn’t aware David’s not a model house guest or even an ideal relative, it’s just that to her, he’s family and that means more than an uneaten chicken here or a little rudeness there. Besides, there is a secret she’s hiding that improbably, Eisenberg wants us to believe she’ll reveal to David in the final scenes of the play. A secret about her experience during the war and why she clings so tightly to the notion of relatives she’s never met. More Don Draper in Mad Men then Sophie’s Choice, it’s a secret that’ll put everything Maria’s built at risk. So why then does she suddenly reveal it to this rude younger relative? Eisenberg tries to give us reasons, paltry and improbable as they are.

It’s not like we don’t know it’s coming, if not what exactly the secret will be. Eisenberg drops hints at it all throughout the play. On the one hand, Maria says she’s an open book, willing to speak about anything, but when David (in one of the few moments he deigns to talk to her) asks her about her time during the war, she becomes flustered and changes subjects. In another scene she casually drops a comment about a time when she didn’t leave the house for four years, only to scoff at David’s inquiry as to why.

But if these are crumbs on the trail to Maria’s secret and Eisenberg’s point about what defines family, it’s a journey far too long to keep us all that interested. Sure, we’ve laughed along the way. Maria is a gas and there’s no question McMurdo-Wallis’ performance is one of the best of the season. I have no idea if her Polish was spot on, but there’s no doubt her accented English, hand-waving while talking, flitting about the flat, lack of respect for closed doors and ability to take up space by sheer will of personality, elicits great laughter from the audience.

We’re also meant to laugh at a third character Eisenberg stuffs into the show for comic effect. Zenon (a gruff and grunting Steve Irish making the most of his hulking presence), a taxi-driver friend of Maria’s. Someone who helps her run errands in return for some odd, possibly sweet/possibly creepy, privileges. As the plot prods on, Eisenberg layers on a scene where David messes with the Polish-only speaking Zenon by teaching him words like “asshole” without explaining its meaning. Even Maria plays along, choosing David’s amusement over Zenon’s potential humiliation.

Sure, the audience chuckles on cue, but is it truly funny to watch a white privileged young man, a man who can afford to fly to Poland, hang out for a week, not working or worrying about money, treat a Polish speaking adult like a talking monkey? Narratively, in a two-hour show with so many extraneous scenes, is this moment (or others like it) really necessary?

To Eisenberg’s credit, post-climax, he doesn’t attempt to end things neatly or happily. The secret is out, diluted by the show’s running time for certain, but it does have ripple effects. We finally see what Eisenberg has muddily been trying to show us all along. No matter what you think about family, once you’re faced with its loss or even its lessening, you realize that you care a lot more and in different ways than you ever realized. Connection and disconnection, after all, are simply opposite sides of the same coin.

The Revisionist continues through April 22 at The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (in partnership with Stages Reparatory Theatre, 5601 South Braeswood. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $25-$59

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman