Can the production of a somewhat flawed play deliver a marvelous theatrical experience? Well, the answer to that question is on the stage right now at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. “The Revisionist,” a one-act play by Jesse Eisenberg that could use some strong, well, revision, offers one of the finest creations of a character on-stage that I’ve seen in my decade-plus stint as a reviewer. The holes in the plot didn’t matter – the questions of motivation were set aside – as I watched, often enthralled, Cecelia Riddett create the character of Maria. It is a stunning, multi-layered performance I will remember for many years to come.
So, first, to the play itself. Set in Poland in 2007, it has an American writer, David (Carl Howell) visiting his aunt Maria in Szczecin. Why? Well, he wants to revise a novel he’s written (why a visit to an aunt in Poland will facilitate this process is never fully explained). The aunt welcomes him with open arms – she is seldom visited by relatives. David has some quirks – he’s a vegetarian and often resorts to puffing on a pipe (Marijuana? Opium? Oatmeal? Who knows) to ease his anxieties. Throughout the play, directed by Sasha Bratt, the phone rings – Maria dutifully answers – it’s apparently a persistent telemarketer – there may be some hidden symbolism here but, quite frankly, it escaped me. Maria, of a certain age, relies on a taxi driver, Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk) to shuttle her around town and often do her shopping for her. Their relationship? Well, maybe if you speak Polish that might be made clear (as would the meaning of the phone calls), but for those of us not familiar with the Polish language it remains vague.
Maria is a Holocaust survivor, and there will be a reveal near the end of the play that deals with relatives and actually who is the real revisionist. It all ends on an ambiguous note that is less than satisfying – there’s a feeling that there should be a final scene yet to be written – you simply want a bit more from the relationship that has grown between Maria and David. Unfortunately, Eisenberg doesn’t give it to us.
So, with such uneven material, why bother attending a performance of “The Revisionist”? Well, it’s quite simple: Cecelia Riddett’s Maria, for all of the play’s faults, is a fully realized, mesmerizing character. Her performance is absolutely stunning, especially since much of it is delivered in Polish (which the actress doesn’t speak) and fractured English. To watch her create Maria on stage is to take a two-year grad course in acting, complete with a full semester on the use of body language to frame a character and convey emotions. Such is the power of Riddett’s performance that you can often disregard what is being said on stage and simply enjoy how it is being said, how the lines are being delivered as Riddett’s body tenses, relaxes, leans and stiffens, and to understand how important and compelling hand gestures can be. In “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman writes: “A hand moves with a complex precision that’s irreplaceable, feels with a delicate intuition that’s indefinable…” Proof positive of this can be seen in Riddett’s performance.
So, I would urge you to make your way up to Playhouse on Park to make the acquaintance of Maria as realized by Cecelia Riddett. In an otherwise uneven play, she creates a Chekhovian character that carries the play from start to finish. You may not remember some of the play’s specifics, but you will remember Maria.
“The Revisionist” runs through April 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org