The Revisionist, Cherry Lane Theatre, New York

What I always remember about a Vanessa Redgrave performance are the hands. In The Revisionist, an emotionally charged, slightly frustrating new off-Broadway drama in which Redgrave stars with Jesse Eisenberg, who also wrote the play, Redgrave’s large expressive hands appear always to be doing two things: serving food or re-arranging photographs.

She portrays Maria, an elderly Jewish woman who lives in Szczecin, Poland, a port city near the Baltic. Into her cramped flat – whose spiritual and physical tightness suggests late cold war-era Europe rather than the more recent timeframe in which the story is set – has come David, her young American cousin played by Eisenberg. A writer whose first book sold well, David is struggling to complete his second effort, and has come to Szczecin to work for a week.

Why an energetic young man would choose to barricade himself in an airless Polish apartment to write is an obvious objection. David turns out to have an interest in his family’s history, and Maria, who as a young girl lost her family to the concentration camps, seems the key to valuable knowledge. When Redgrave does spill wartime stories, however, no choice Sophie-like secret is forthcoming. Her pan-Slavic accent, though, does recall things Streepian: Redgrave occasionally lapses into Polish, and a taxi driver played by Daniel Oreskes speaks it almost entirely.

If Eisenberg, whose earlier drama, Asuncion, was, like The Revisionist, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, manages effortlessly to summon up worlds with cultural richness, he is less adept at structure. By the time we arrive at the narrative jolt of the production, which is directed inventively by Kip Fagan, we seem to have skipped a step or two in getting there.

Yet throughout the evening, an interval-less 100 minutes, my mind never wandered. As Maria fusses over David’s food, and as he darts frequently back to the bedroom to smoke pot, I relished details of performance: Redgrave’s unfussy fussiness and Eisenberg’s assured nervousness. Not least among the pleasures of the production, which brims with the humour of linguistic difference, is the way we see the performers through the scrim of their past parts: Redgrave’s gallery of Eastern Europeans, and Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. But can the actor retire for a while the wearing of hoodies? Pretty please?

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