Starting with his hereditarily pretentious role in The Squid and the Whale, Jesse Eisenberg — who makes his stage-writing debut with the Off Broadway Asuncion — has been carving himself out a specific niche of neurosis. Introverted, passive-aggressive, and with interactional tics that at least hint at some placement on the low end of the autism spectrum, his characters tend to be counterpoints to the idea of man as a social animal.
The role he has penned for himself drives these traits to the end of the line. His character, Edgar, is needy, weak-willed, and perpetually condescending. He uses a brief student trip to Cambodia as proof of his sophistication and justifies his selfishness with feigned helplessness. He also idolizes his roommate, Vinny — a slacker-stoner alpha male played hilariously by Justin Bartha — to an unhealthy degree, waiting on him hand and foot and grasping at stray words of approbation like a dog at a bone.
This already unstable household is disrupted further by the arrival of Edgar’s new sister-in-law from the Philippines, the peppy, trusting Asuncion (Camille Mana), who moves in for a few days. Falsely convinced that Asuncion must be a former sex slave or mail-order bride, Edgar goes about documenting her every move to prove his suspicions. On the surface, it plays like a farce, and in truth, Eisenberg’s dialogue gets a lot of laughs. But there is also an underlying current of unease, of just-out-of-view maliciousness, that runs throughout the show’s two acts. It’s not unlike the human ugliness evident in the work of Neil LaBute, particularly In the Company of Men, and in a similar fashion, this trio’s dynamic eventually devolves into something primal and nasty.
Asuncion is a solid playwriting debut for Eisenberg, even if the plot can be as shaggy and messy as the low-rent apartment in which it’s set. The play just sort of shuffles staggeringly in the direction of its dramatic catharsis, where Edgar’s hypocrisy and the network of underlying sexual tensions are laid bare, rather than moving toward it with confidence. As a writer, he’s not Aaron Sorkin — to be fair, few people other than Aaron Sorkin are — but he has created something more ambitious than the sort of safe, colorless dramedy that a lot of first-time playwrights go for. In the end, he’s managed a work that is, on occasion, both brutal and brutally funny. B+
(Tickets: OvationTix.com or 866-811-4111)