Immediately after Edgar, a listless post-college journalist with few bylines to his name, returns to his off-campus apartment-cum-hovel in Binghamton, New York, his face bloodied, his first proclamation to his bewildered roommate Vinny is that he understands the oppression of his black attackers as members of a culture that he paints in broad brushstrokes as one longing to strike back against those with the upper hand in society.
His is an interesting pronouncement, made in the first scene of Asuncion, the new comedy written by and starring (as Edgar) film actor Jesse Eisenberg, an Oscar nominee for his portrayal of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in the film The Social Network, who is making his playwriting debut.
This production, presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, a reliable purveyor of interesting new writing who have rightfully championed Mr. Eisenberg’s foray into theatre writing, is most notable because of how its central character finds his prejudices flipped on their heads as the play’s premise evolves.
We soon learn that Edgar’s roommate Vinny, a white Africanist who was Edgar’s T.A. in college, is both the epitome of laid-back academia and a controlling force in Edgar’s life, a sort of idol to him as a functioning (well, barely) member of society. When Edgar’s brother Stuart, a Wall Street suit, arrives on their doorstep to announce that he’s recently been married and that his new wife needs to stay with them for a few days, Edgar, himself hesitant about the situation, expects Vinny to disapprove but soon finds that he and Vinny are both happy enough to bask in the positive energy of Asuncion, Stuart’s beautiful Filipino bride.
The arrival of Asuncion gives momentum to Mr. Eisenberg’s play. At first, Edgar and Vinny barrage her with questions – where is she from, what language does she speak? Edgar soon turns suspicious – why, he wonders, would his brother be in such a hurry to hide her away if they weren’t in some grave danger, on the lam from some dreadful crime? As he begins to develop a harebrained scheme of writing a journalistic piece about her life as a mail-order bride (an assumption he’s too proud to ask Asuncion to confirm), Vinny on the other hand develops a casual friendship with her that makes Edgar ever more jealous.
Things eventually reach a breaking point when Edgar’s machinations are revealed and the ignorance of his assumptions is revealed in stark contrast with his earlier pronouncements on the subject of race. Simultaneously with this revelation comes the straining of Vinny and Edgar’s friendship, stretched to its quasi-homoerotic limits by the jealousies that arise due to Asuncion’s stay in their shabby home.
Eisenberg, whose character is the center of the play and yet an oddly inert one, has carved himself here a Woody Allen-esque presence as both writer and actor. The play is consistently funny and his character is casually, caustically funny. As an actor, he’s matched by Justin Bartha, who exudes a confident stoner-sexy vibe as Vinny and provides the perfect foil for Eisenberg’s determinedly not fun characterization of Edgar, who’s painted as the ultimate wet blanket.
Remy Auberjonois is fine in the supporting role of Stuart, and Camille Mana shines as Asuncion, whose nickname is “Sunny” and who adds a ditzy but decidedly real center to the piece that keeps the ideological arguments raised firmly grounded in the concerns of real-life characters.
Asuncion, it should be noted, is by no means a life-altering piece of theatre. Its aims are fairly unambitious, and the play serves mainly as a character study. Occasionally it feels like a prolonged comedy sketch, but it also maintains a sense of levity and genuine humor that keeps the play from losing its edge and maintains an audience’s interest throughout.
Directed assuredly by Kip Fagan, a Rattlestick veteran, the play moves briskly toward its semi-profound (yes, only semi-) conclusion and represents a promising playwriting debut for Jesse Eisenberg, whose next theatrical outing will undoubtedly be hotly anticipated – and rightfully so.