Suffering from writer’s block, six weeks overdue to deliver a revised manuscript to his editor, and blocked from the adventurous getaway he’d planned by an inconsiderate Maoist insurgency in Kathmandu, David arrives at the home of his distant cousin Maria, in Szczecin, Poland, already aggrieved, self-pitying, and wrapped up in his own internal drama. Met by Maria’s (admittedly slightly overwhelming) enthusiasm and genuine desire to spend time with him—the only member of her sprawling American family ever to visit her for more than a perfunctory afternoon—he grows only more uncomfortable and impolite. Written and played by Jesse Eisenberg, David is a perfect example of the kind of neurotic-verging-on-narcissistic character Eisenberg plays so well.
Here, though, the narcissism of the young writer seems at the forefront, putting the audience in the equivocal position of being asked to find one’s emotional route into The Revisionist and its central relationship via someone actively unlikable: thoughtless, careless, self-absorbed, and dismissive. David, who had a relative success with his first book (a young adult novel that he’s not all that proud of in retrospect), seems to believe that the comfortable life he’s lived is the only thing standing between him and real accomplishment, but still doesn’t quite have the nerve to do something truly uncomfortable—only mildly inconvenient, like a sojourn in a Poland that he’s imagined will be quaintly uncivilized. On some level, he knows, even admits (at least when stoned) that he’s a terrible person, but at the same time, when he makes that admission, it’s pretty clear he’s looking for sympathy rather than hard truths.
Most of the play is a push-and-pull between David and Maria, with David asserting his need to be left alone to write (though not succeeding at doing so) and Maria ambivalent about her guest. She’s torn over how to relate to this person who is so far from the eager and excited guest she’s imagined, who hasn’t even thought to bring her a gift (put on the spot by her bluntness, he hands over a bottle of duty-free Polish vodka to a nonplussed Maria, who remarks dryly that she lives in Poland). She wants to shower affection on David, as a stand-in not only for his grandfather and the fairly distant cousins whose pictures blanket her walls but for the family she lost to a concentration camp sixty years ago; she’s testing him as a possible repository of her stories and her secrets. She is passionate about her connection to hundreds of people she’s mostly not even met, and baffled by David’s indifference to even his immediate family; he doesn’t recognize the faces that hang over his bed.
But while she may claim to be “an open book,” she’s no fool: she figures out pretty quickly that David is taking advantage of her and often not even bothering to be polite in return. Though she doesn’t come out and say so bluntly till much later—and there are moments where they seem to be building a real friendship—she doesn’t think much of him. She’s also a lot less flighty than her fussing and fawning can make her appear—and Vanessa Redgrave (ably directed by Kip Fagan) brings a grounded steeliness to the character that makes her stronger than she may have been on the page. In Redgrave’s hands, Maria’s self-deprecation over her bad English (“my English is sometimes like cows,” she says), her coyness with a sardonic assessment of David’s motives or character, are tools she wields for her own protection. There’s a running bit in which Maria is plagued by telemarketers calling to solicit donations for the blind, to whom she is unfailingly polite. To David, she’s being taken advantage of, and that’s not an entirely inaccurate assessment, but I think it’s more accurate to say she’s a woman who learned long ago to choose her battles, and that’s not one worth fighting. She’s learned to pick her allies, too—like Zenon (the play’s third, somewhat superfluous, character), the taxi driver who takes her on her errands, carries her groceries up the stairs, and generally looks out for her.
The play’s central revelation—Maria’s biggest secret—is a striking moment, but situated awkwardly; its consequences aren’t really allowed to play out, so it doesn’t successfully complicate the play. There’s the seed of an interesting dynamic in the fact that it’s David’s very unpleasantness, Maria’s realization that she’s willing to burn this emotional bridge, that allows her to reveal uncomfortable truths to him, but it’s not really developed.
I will never say no to the chance to see Vanessa Redgrave onstage—and she’s clearly relishing the role—but the play is, at best, slight. I’m not sure whether we’re meant to see David as redeemed by his ultimate acceptance of Maria with all her flaws and lies and tragedies, or whether we’re supposed to remain sympathetic to her when she calls him out on his inconsiderateness and thoughtlessness. I’d love to believe David will return home understanding something, anything, but I’m not sure that’s likely. I took sides early on—which made it hard for me to be invested in the development of David and Maria’s relationship. Their moments of genuine connection are the play’s strongest and often funniest, but for me they were outweighed by David’s prevailing unpleasantness.