Faulty Assumptions Make Eisenberg's Asuncion Entertaining

My friend and I found ourselves discussing Jesse Eisenberg's new play, Asuncion, for a good half hour after we recently saw it. That says something for the play; while slight and not fully realized, I found Asuncion to be amusing, fairly entertaining, and, obviously, based on our post-play conversation, thought-provoking. And, yes, this is the same Jesse Eisenberg who is better known as an actor and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Social Network. With Asuncion, Eisenberg shows he has some talent as a playwright. Nevertheless, Asuncion is not quite funny enough for a flat-out comedy and not dramatic or powerful enough for a fully satisfying drama. Still, I'm glad I saw it.

Eisenberg not only wrote the play, he is its star. He plays Edgar, an aimless slacker who lives in the apartment of Vinny, played by Justin Bartha. Vinny is a pothead who had been Edgar's teacher (actually a teaching assistant) in a course on African studies. Edgar worships Vinny, and there is clearly some co-dependency in their relationship. When Edgar's brother brings his bride, Asuncion, who is Filipino, to stay with Edgar and Vinny for a few days, Edgar's liberal views combine with his own insecurities to lead to complications. Edgar jumps to the conclusion that Asuncion must have been a sex slave, and was possibly a mail-order bride, based on some flimsy premises that he has come up with to fit his preconceived notion that Asuncion has to be oppressed and a victim. That fits Edgar's tendency to twist facts into the story he wants to believe.

While none of this is developed with great depth or power, it is nonetheless an often worthy evening that includes some rapid-fire dialogue and has its moments. Eisenberg succeeds in raising the audience's curiosity about what is happening in the play. The performers all excel. Eisenberg's Edgar has a quirky neurotic mix of neediness, superiority, and intelligence, and he plays it all to the hilt -- it is fun to watch Eisenberg perform this role onstage. Edgar is pretentious, irritating, and insecure. As Vinny describes him, Edgar is "not fun," and watching Eisenberg, with his nervous body language and social awkwardness, you understand why Vinny says that. As Vinny, Bartha, so good in nerdy roles both on film and onstage, is excellent in a different kind of role. Vinny is the cool, alpha male, know-it-all, cocky stoner, and Bartha finds the right tone for him. Camille Mana is glowing, radiant, and delightful as Asuncion.

This play is mostly about the relationship between the men, and how their social consciousness, particularly with Edgar, can be channeled in the wrong direction with just a few bad assumptions. Edgar defines himself by his views -- he reminds us multiple times during the show that he once was in Cambodia, although we learn later in the show that it wasn't quite how Edgar makes it out to be. While Asuncion has its issues as a play, Eisenberg, as noted earlier, shows skill and has written a piece that has ambitions beyond the standard sitcom or male bromance play it might have been. Asuncion addresses other issues, ranging from life experience to the danger of locking into preconceived notions based on your political beliefs; although not totally developed or clarified, it nevertheless prompts thought and discussion while offering insightful observations. Eisenberg makes a solid debut as a playwright and a commanding stage appearance as an actor. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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