Of Spoilers and Survival Strategies

The American critics missed the key to 'The Revisionist,’ the exemplary play written by actor Jesse Eisenberg, now being brilliantly performed at Beit Lessin. But go see it before reading any further.

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"A New Old Story."
"A New Old Story."Credit: Gadi Dagon

Usually I wage a fierce battle against the culture of “spoiler anxiety” that has begun to dominate the writing and reading of literary, cinematic and theater criticism. I’m convinced that if the artistic quality of such work depends entirely on the fact that the spectators and readers are unfamiliar with its plot details, then something is wrong with the work itself.

But still I’m asking anyone who plans to see the local version of "The Revisionist" (called "Sipur Yashan Hadash," literally, “A New Old Story”), the play by Jesse Eisenberg that is now being performed at Beit Lessin – and I highly recommend doing so – to stop reading this article now.

As far as I’m concerned you can put it aside and go back to it after seeing the play, and then maybe I can contribute something to your experience. If you see the play and don’t read this column, believe me, you won’t be missing anything. Any experience of viewing a play, whether it's good or bad, is preferable, in my opinion, to reading criticism, including (in fact, mainly) mine. The value of theater criticism, if any, is for the spectator who has seen the play, as a means to join a kind of shared discussion of the experience.

This spoiler alert is very necessary since the turning point in the play in question – the first written by Eisenberg, who played Mark Zuckerberg in the film “Social Network” and will be playing Lex Luthor in the film “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” – is so important that it really does turn the spectator’s world upside down (along with the world of the characters). But there is no way to discuss the unique quality of this work without dealing with that turning point.

The play begins when David, a young American Jewish writer with writer’s block (he has to rewrite his second book in accordance with the demands of his publisher, after the success of his first book, an allegorical work for young adults about fascism, which is set in the animal kingdom), who lands in the apartment of a distant relative, Maria, a Holocaust survivor who lives alone in a Polish city. She considers him a relative, and he draws on that family connection because he wants to escape from himself. Indeed, he could just as well have fled to Katmandu or Tanzania (he did in fact try to do so).

They’re family, but they live in two worlds: Maria is full of hope for familial warmth and is willing to host him and open her world to him, but David is preoccupied with his egocentric distress, and wants her to leave him alone and let him get high. Her apartment is full of pictures of members of her large family in the United States, most of whom David doesn’t know (he only sees his own sister once a year, if that), and Maria attributes tremendous emotional value to blood ties. If anything, he prefers intimacy created between people rather that the obligations of blood ties (on condition that the intimacy revolves around him).

When "The Revisionist" was performed off-Broadway, starring Eisenberg in the role of David (all the critics thought he had drawn a shallow caricature of his generation, and somehow ignored the fact that in order to draw a caricature of oneself, a person has to be well aware of who and what he is), he played opposite Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Maria. What attracted attention – apparently with justification – was the fact that an outstanding theater and film actress like Redgrave was acting in a first play, off-Broadway. The American critics also spoke about the rare personal qualities that Redgrave brought to the role, but were dismissive of the play itself, seeing it as a draft that needed rewriting, just like David’s book.

Criticism of the play itself centered around the clash between the world of the Holocaust survivor (who lost her family, survived in hiding, married the Polish son of her rescuer and clung to the weak connection with a large family tree in America) – and the narrow, extremely egoistic, coarse and exploitative world of David. People were impressed by Maria’s broken English and the Polish that she speaks onstage with Zenon, a Polish friend, an alcoholic taxi driver, without it being understood by either David or the American audience.

Dori Parnas has found a brilliant Hebrew equivalent to the broken English, and the lack of communication is amusing here in Israel, too (where most of the audience, unlike me, does not understand the Polish).

When they are closest

But the American critics totally missed the amazing-enlightening point of this play, even if they understood that it is an important plot detail. During the play, Maria and David succeed in communicating, thanks largely to her persistence. He understands that she is a Holocaust survivor, and he is interesting in hearing what happened to her back then: about her wealthy Jewish family that moved to the ghetto, her brother who was murdered before her eyes after sneezing on an SS officer, the way she was smuggled to her Christian babysitter and grew up as a Catholic. She told all this to her family whom she eventually found in America, and now she’s telling David, and finally getting him to demonstrate some empathy and stop being so self-centered.

And when human intimacy is created between them on the stage, thanks largely to the hashish he smokes and the vodka they drink, she reveals her real secret to him: After she was rescued by herself and adopted by a Polish Christian family, she met another Jewish woman-survivor her age, who died a short time later of tuberculosis. Maria had heard about the family of her dead friend and “planted” herself inside that family: Indeed, she had created an fictitious family identity for herself and grew into it. Unlike the survivors who invented an identity to survive amid the horrors of the war, Maria invented a family for herself so as to survive afterward.

The American critics for some reason saw this as a parallel to “Sophie’s Choice,” but in my opinion there’s no connection at all. Because what we discover here is mainly Maria’s need to reveal her "rewriting of her life" to one of the subjects of this rewriting: David.

As mentioned, the play was originally called “The Revisionist,” which is hard to translate into Hebrew, because here the “Revisionists” were something else (they belonged to a right-wing Zionist political movement), although they were also engaged in rewriting a narrative.

After Maria's revelation, and when David proves incapable of understanding how much she has exposed herself to him, just at the height of the intimacy created between two strangers who are ostensibly relatives (anyone who says “you don’t choose your family” understands in this play that you actually do) – she expels him from her life and her home. David was ready to “love” her and perhaps “pity” her because of her suffering, but he is totally insensitive to the distress that caused her to rewrite herself into his life.

What is especially pleasing about this play is not only the moment of revelation itself, but the way everything that happens in the play leads up to and explains it. This is true of David’s alienation from his real family in the name of individualism, and of Maria’s thirst for all the details and her need to surround herself with photographs of people whom she may not know, but about whom she actually knows everything. The same is true of her insistence on appearances: She attributes huge importance to the scathing criticism of David’s first book because it appeared in The New York Times.

Throughout the play the plot is interrupted by phone calls received by Maria, in which people are trying to get her to donate money to the blind. She knows it’s a fraud, and still she answers every calls with great politeness. And incidentally, here in the local version of the play, there is a wonderful directing-acting idea that is not written in the stage directions: Each time the phone rings, Maria passes by the mirror on her way to the phone itself and fixes the lock of gray hair on her forehead. I don’t know if that’s an invention of director Avishai Milstein or of actress Liora Rivlin, but I find it brilliant. That’s how Maria’s survival looks: politeness and pretending, as is necessary.

And into that enters Maria’s friend Zenon, the alcoholic taxi driver, played with exceptional charm by Raffi Tavor, whose entire role is performed in Polish. The first time David and the audience meet him, he is using a razor to shave Maria’s legs, which are resting in a tub of hot water. It’s a very intimate moment that shocks David, as though he had caught his parents copulating. But immediately it turns out that Zenon used to shave the legs of his mother, who died a few years back.

Maria serves as a mother substitute, and in any case needs to have her legs shaved. She is a family substitute for Zenon, just as the fictitious American family is for her: You do choose your family after all.

The basis for the moment when Maria reveals herself to David is laid down in one of the play’s comic moments: The two characters communicate in English, which Zenon does not understand at all. When he insists that David learn a world in Polish, Maria and David join forces against him and get him to say “shit” (Maria’s idea; she tells Zenon it means “headache”) and “asshole” (David’s idea; Maria explains to Zenon that it means “computer”).

The two Jews make fun of the goy with something shared that has been created between them, but is as artificial as their family ties. And when Maria realizes that David is not open to accepting her original self, and that he prefers her in the rewritten version – she uses Zenon to drive David out of her life, to the airport, back to New York.

Vitaly Friedland plays David, and manages to survive exceptionally well as this repulsive character, and even arouses some sympathy. And just as Eisenberg was praised for his ability to share the stage with the legendary Redgrave, Friedland deserves compliments for being such a worthy partner for Rivlin, who once again is revealed as an outstanding character actress. Her measured, restrained and concentrated movement on the stage, the precision of every gesture and every word, in the broken Hebrew-English invented by Parnas and in Polish, only intensify the surprise at her dizzying dive into self-revelation.

This is a play and a performance that in a sense can be seen only once, just as one can lose one’s virginity only once – if you’ll excuse the comparison. The spectator is brought to a human-familial place that is important for understanding the fabric of our relations with ourselves and those close to us, and this is an important lesson even for those for whom the Holocaust is only a historical detail rather than a family story.