Hollywood actor/playwright Jesse Eisenberg’s 2011 comedy Asunción makes it to the stage of the Alchemist Theatre this month courtesy of Forge Theater. The story of two men and the woman they allow into their home finds a cozy space in the studio theatre space of the Alchemist. It’s an inherently social play that explores the complexity of human interaction
Jake Thompson is compellingly vulnerable in the role of a broken intellectual named Edgar. He longs to be a journalist, but the weight of his overall knowledge about the world keeps him relatively catatonic and incapable of engaging fully in the world around him. Edgar has no job and no definite direction in life aside from serving as assistant to the African Studies teacher’s aid he is living with.
Josh Decker has a deftly muted charisma in the role of the TA--a guy named Vinny. It’s his apartment. Presumably he’s able to provide for himself and Edgar on an academic salary. He can be cruel to Edgar, but largely due to the fact that he’s uncomfortable around him. It’s a bit of a messed-up relationship between the two guys that gets further complicated by the sudden appearance of Edgar’s brother Stuart.
Joe Picchetti takes a sympathetic tone in the role of Edgar’s brother Stuart, who asks him to allow his new wife to stay at Vinny’s place for a few days while he gets a matter of business cleared-up. Eisenberg could have painted Vinny as a flatly cruel sibling who thinks himself superior to his awkward brother. The script roundly avoids this by allowing the character some genuine concern for Edgar--a concern that Picchetti fully embraces with the frustration of an older sibling.
Erin Sunisa has a casually appealing demeanor about her as Jake’s wife Asunción. She’s trying to make the best of an awkward situation, choosing to stay with family instead of at some hotel. Vinny’s decision to allow her to stay at his place for a couple of days complicates things with him and Edgar. Asuncion is a Filipina who has been in the states for a few years. Sunisa gives the character admirable depth whether she’s being charmed , concerned and a little unnerved by Edgar’s interest in her and generally quite happy around Vinny.
The script is has been criticized for its lack of dramatic depth. Critics of productions in other markets have felt that bromantic comedy of Vinny and Edgar is nice enough with its clever, little socio-political comedy, but there’s nothing there that’s satisfying beyond the comedy. I mean . . . even the guy at the New York Times said, "the dramatic engine of the play is a nonstarter." So naturally I was surprised to find out that there’s a hell of a lot of dramatic depth to Asunción. Here’s what I found...Spoilers ahead...
Throughout the play, Eisenberg peppers the dialogue with hints that all four characters are lying to each other about various very fundamental things. What’s more--it’s pretty clear that they’re all lying to themselves about some pretty fundamental stuff too, so even when they TRY to level with each other, they aren’t capable of being totally honest. It’s fascinating to pick everything apart here because it really is a very complicated dynamic between all of the characters.
Asunción is a remarkably detailed analysis of how, as flawed human beings, we can only see each other through the lens of their own petty problems. This would be fine if we were actually addressing those big problems, but we are blissfully oblivious to those bigger problems as we are caught-up in far more petty issues.
Edgar is catatonic. On a practical level, he seems to feel as though his biggest problem is making Vinny happy. Actually, his biggest problem is his crippling mental illness...he’s unemployed and almost completely incapable of functioning on a normal adult level. He needs help...REAL psychiatric help, but no one seems to notice of care for the most part.
Vinny could theoretically help out...indeed he seems to really care about Edgar and tries to interest him in being active and functional. He can’t really help Edgar out, though, because ultimately he doesn’t seem to think he’s worth Edgar’s adoration. So there’s a part of him the feels Edgar’s despicably subhuman for wanting to adore him. This causes him to be very, very cruel to Edgar. He thinks his biggest problem is Edgar, but it’s really a lack of direction. He’s a graduate student living in a filthy apartment with someone he kind of hates and smokes quite a lot of marijuana to cope with it all. He needs to find direction and probably could if he took Edgar seriously enough to actually try to help him become well-adjusted.
Stuart’s situation is complicated. Clearly he’d rather not even deal with his brother Edgar, but Asunción wants to be around family during a rough period in her life and Edgar IS Stuart’s brother, so he’s forced into a really awful situation. He thinks his biggest problem is Edgar, but actually it’s Asunción.
Asunción is pregnant. Eisenberg is careful never to mention it directly, but the hints are clearly there: Cravings for a strange combination of food. Morning sickness that Edgar seems to think might be bulimia. My theory is that a pregnancy out of wedlock might have complicated relations with her family and she’s just trying to forget about it while smoking, dropping acid and generally getting reckless with things while Stuart sorts things out. This might not be the best situation as it’s entirely possible that Stuart is panicking and trying to figure out a way to get rid of her. He may be totally affectionate to her to her face, but he might he feigning it in order to keep things together. Asunción’s grasping for some kind of family because it had been supportive to her for so long and now it’s just not there for her.
Director Jake Brockmann has neither Stuart nor Asunción wearing wedding rings...which got me checking into the matter online. Online video shows that the original production of the play had Asunción (and possibly Stuart) wearing wedding rings. So the ambiguity isn't written into the script, but it DOES bring up an interesting point. There’s enough lying and double talk going on throughout the play that it’s possible that they’re only claiming to be married for some reason . . . and maybe Stuart’s not telling Asunción that he’s considering abandoning her. There’s some suggestion with his concern over her and a bag of McDonald’s food early on in the script that he might know that she’s pregnant and...he IS kind of a jerk...so it’s possible that he's looking for a way out.
Of course, Eisenberg is careful never to make any of the nebulous background of the characters very clear, which is the real genius of the script. It makes the story that much more engaging. All we see is what’s in front off us. There’s a colossal mess in the world beyond the characters’ interactions that we can only guess at. The fact of the matter is that we simply CAN’T address the bigger problems with each other and society at large (or even define what they are) because we’re too wrapped up in our own petty problems...problems like the personal territory and motivation and self-worth that the characters in Asunción could get beyond if they just cleared their heads long enough to make a genuine effort to get to know each other.
And there are SO MANY other angles to explore in and within the rest of the script. Eisenberg delivers a whole lot of complexity that’s really fascinating to crack into. . . over a day later and I’m still thinking about it. Brockmann does an excellent job of bringing the script to the stage in a way that allows that complexity to breathe. A pity it hasn’t been received well elsewhere. It’s one of the most cleverly-written feature-length American plays I’ve seen that have been written in the past ten years.
Forge Theater’s production of Asunción runs through November 19 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit the show’s page on Brown Paper Tickets.