NEW YORK — On a cramped stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre, a historic off-Broadway venue tucked away on one of the quaintest streets in the West Village, Vanessa Redgrave is offering her costar Jesse Eisenberg an education not even the world's finest drama school could provide.
Eisenberg, an actor best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in the film "The Social Network," happens to be a budding dramatist. His new play, "The Revisionist," is one of the scarcest tickets in New York right now, thanks to Redgrave, who is making an American stage appearance away from the bright lights of Broadway (though rumor has it the show may be heading there).
At the moment, even the city's more jaded theatergoers seem to be agog at the opportunity of seeing British theatrical royalty up close in an intimate venue, though they can't be half as excited as Eisenberg himself.
He not only gets to witness one of the greatest thespians in the English-speaking world incarnate a role he has written but he gets to do so as a fellow performer. (His Playbill bio acknowledges how "extremely honored" he is to be sharing the stage with her.)
Playing Maria, the elderly Polish cousin whom David, Eisenberg's self-absorbed American character, comes to visit, Redgrave does more than turn in another of her majestic watercolor portraits of the human soul. She supplies historical gravitas for Eisenberg's play, filling in meaning where the author has left only a suggestion.
Props are portals to hidden worlds in her hands. Look at what she does with a cooked chicken. Re-heating the dinner she had prepared for David, who has arrived three hours later than expected, she asks him to join her at the table for their first meal together. Annoyed by her anxious hospitality, he declines the invitation, gruffly explaining that he's not hungry and doesn't eat meat.
As Maria picks up the hot dish she has prepared especially for him, the disappointment weighs heavily on her. Redgrave imbues the moment with shame — shame for not pleasing her visitor, shame for his rejection of her company and shame for the waste of expensive food. She's only staring at a modest chicken, but her eyes reveal hunger during the Second World War, food lines during the Communist era and limited income as a senior citizen.
Maria is also ashamed for feeling ashamed. She is his host — she shouldn't be dwelling on her own humiliation. There's a modesty to Redgrave's character that is at once uniquely personal and distinctly Polish. Psychology and sociology mesh as biography settles into its national context.
"The Revisionist," which is still a few revisions away from realizing its vision, deals with secrets from the traumatic past. Maria, a Jew who survived the Holocaust by giving up her Jewish identity, feels a deep kinship with the American relatives she barely knows. Her immediate family was killed during the war. David, a writer who has come to Poland to finish his book, is curious about her history but feels no special connection to her as a person.
Maria, on the other hand, reveres David. She has framed the New York Times review of his first book. The novel was panned, but to her the mere fact that it's mentioned in the paper constitutes a rave. Her distant American cousins, whose portraits hang in the bedroom, reassure her that the future wasn't destroyed in the death camps.
But the worshipful image she carries in her mind is at odds with David's angry, strung-out personality. He acts like he's withdrawing from drugs. The only thing that seems to bring him any relief is the weed he keeps smoking on the sly in the bedroom.
Unfortunately, the contrast between these characters is so exaggerated by Eisenberg's writing that the play often has a sitcom ring. In "4000 Miles," Amy Herzog similarly brings together characters of different generations and sensibilities, yet the interaction between them feels more unpredictable, less stagy.
A major shortcoming is that David's agitated state is left undefined. (Kip Fagan's direction doesn't effectively modulate Eisenberg's antic performance.) David may be unconsciously registering the tremors of the European catastrophe that engulfed his ancestors or he may just be a narcissistic American writer with a mood disorder and a substance abuse problem. Perhaps both of these possibilities are true. But the material lies inchoate in Eisenberg's play and portrayal.
Redgrave, however, is a source of illumination. She doesn't simply interpret "The Revisionist" — she extends its meaning.
Good actors are adept counterfeiters of human behavior. Great actors go one step further, elucidating the implications of the actions they perform with painstaking verisimilitude. Carefully arranging outward appearances, they make transparent the interior spark. More valuable still, they connect the thematic dots of a script while never forgetting that their primary task is the truthful realization of their character.
When Maria switches from English to Polish while speaking on the phone or to her helpful friend Zenon (Daniel Oreskes), the play's third character, Redgrave's accent certainly seems authentic to a non-Polish speaker. But equally impressive is the way she inhabits Maria's humble environment. This isn't a theatrical legend slumming off-Broadway — this is an actor living another day onstage in Szczecin, Poland.
Eisenberg recognizes that there are experiences too difficult for our conscious minds to fully process. Overwhelming violence leaves gaps; tragedy gives rise to lies, fantasies and ghosts. Artists fill in the space that life has mutilated and rendered mute. Eisenberg doesn't have the skill at this point as a writer to fulfill this task. But Redgrave shows him the way through her acting. Her gift to him goes well beyond her superlative performance — she's guiding a young talent to artistic maturity.