American actor Jesse Eisenberg surprised the audience at ZOA House in Tel Aviv on Thursday night when he attended the Israeli premiere of his play “The Revisionist.”
The Hebrew version was produced by the Beit Lessin theater company and tells the story of the relationship between David (played by Vitaly Friedland), a 25-year-old American-Jewish writer suffering from writer’s block, and his cousin Maria (Liora Rivlin), a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Poland. David, who is having difficulty finishing his book, flies to the small Polish town of Szczecin to visit Maria after many years when no member of her American family has visited her.
The play premiered in March 2013 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, to great acclaim. Eisenberg played the role of David, opposite veteran British actress Vanessa Redgrave, well known for her vehement criticism of Israel.
This is Eisenberg’s first visit to Israel. He came here straight from the set of the movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” directed by Zack Snyder, in which he plays Lex Luthor alongside Ben Affleck and Israeli actress Gal Gadot (who plays Wonder Woman).
At the end of the play, the theater’s general manager, Tzipi Pines, welcomed Eisenberg and thanked him for coming “during these terrible days.” She asked everyone to refrain from asking political questions during the post-show discussion. “Mr. Eisenberg has come here as a guest during this bizarre time, and he has no idea of the political situation,” she said from the stage.
Despite Pines’ request, Eisenberg himself said he had not hesitated to come to Israel despite the security situation and the tension that people on the home front are enduring. He added that if there had been any sign of danger to him, he would have reconsidered, but that wasn’t the case. He said that even though this was not a good time, he and a friend had still toured many places in Israel, and that it was wonderful despite the circumstances.
Eisenberg complimented the director and the actors, saying that the play had autobiographical roots since he really does have an aunt named Maria living alone in Szczecin, Poland. Still, he said that the dramatic and entertaining parts of Maria’s character came only from his imagination.
In writing the play, Eisenberg said he focused on the relationship between the relatives, and that he had written Maria’s character out of love. He said it was easier to identify with her character than with that of David, who suffers from “internal” problems such as artistic frustration and the inability to finish his book, and had never undergone any difficult experiences.
Maria’s Polish character and dialogue had special significance for the Israeli audience. The exchanges between Maria and her friend, the taxi driver Zenon (Rafi Tabor), take place in Polish only, as do Maria’s telephone calls. One audience member told Eisenberg that this gave him a feeling of home and a strong sense of the archetypal Polish mother from many households.
Eisenberg said that his use of Polish was intended to confuse the New York audience. He added that people in Israel spoke and understood many languages, but that people in America understood only one – and barely even that. The fact that the Israeli audience understood the jokes in Polish was a big compliment for him.
“The Revisionist” is Eisenberg’s second play, with his third set to be produced in 2015. When asked how he combined his film career with writing and stage-acting, he said he saw acting as a kind of continuation of writing, and vice versa.
When asked why he chose to focus on the issue of attitudes toward Holocaust survivors, Eisenberg spoke about the generation gap on that issue between himself and his parents. “The modern American kid wants to hear the details about his relatives’ deaths, not their lives,” he said. “He’s interested in the circumstances under which the family died – the story of Auschwitz and not the story of the family that preceded it.
“The young people, myself included, are only interested in that, instinctively. That’s why I intended to show the modern American experience on this issue, and the fact that there’s something missing in the way the subject is treated. Here in Israel it’s more present because this is the Jewish state; there’s a discourse about the Holocaust. It’s not like that in America.”