ASUNCION: Jesse Eisenberg’s Guilt
Jesse Eisenberg’s ASUNCION had the right idea in calling out over-educated, liberal White guilt, but did it follow through in truly getting to the heart of the matter?
Words: Anna Graizbord
Though the play is called ASUNCION, the eponymous character (played by Camille Mana) serves more as a catalyst in exposing the main male characters’ racism despite efforts at being White-guilt-ridden liberals. The play–written, produced and starring Jesse Eisenberg—was great in its essential idea of picking apart the A.J. Soprano-esque pseudo-intellectual posturing hypocrisy of college-age, liberal, White guys who claim to not be racist—especially the particular brand of neurotic, limp-dicked-ness most embodied by Edgar, played by Eisenberg. But what the play, and a lot of critics seem to have missed is that the problem here is really not that Edgar is so overly politically correct, but that clearly Edgar doesn’t even understand what the point of political correctness is. And I’m not entirely clear that Eisenberg does either.
The plot setup begins with a glimpse into the everyday life of Edgar, a college student in upstate New York, who lives in an all-too spot, dingy college guy-style apartment with his best friend and former mentor Vinny (played by Justin Bartha)—a pot-smoking, conceited, dashiki-wearing, African Studies TA (who is White, by the way). Their homoerotic dynamic (with Vinny clearly being the “top”) is really beaten over our heads throughout most of the play, though it never really becomes clear why exactly this insight is important in understanding these characters or their relationship better—or, for that matter, why we should ultimately care at all about these people, but I’ll get to that eventually. Full disclosure: I tend to find “play” style acting gratingly over-the-top, generally, and I’m not so fond of Eisenberg’s stable of evil nerd characters (I couldn’t have had less sympathy for Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg).
However, the writing and humor in the first Act was at its sharpest in establishing these characters as the biggest, and sadly, the most commonly occurring White liberal college-age walking jokes you’ve ever seen. One of the absolute best lines comes when Edgar’s stockbroker brother Stuart calls out Edgar’s “depression” and self-deprecation as actually just a manifestation of abundant selfishness and self-indulgent navel-gazing. Enter Asuncion, Stuart’s new Filipina fiancee who is foisted upon Vinny and Edgar for a few days– the reasons for this, first obscured by Edgar’s brother and in the end revealed, never makes any sense. That aside, Edgar, egged on by Vinny, becomes convinced Asuncion is secretly a prostitute or mail order bride and gets obsessed with the idea of writing a story about the plight that Edgar completely imagines Asuncion to have gone through to come to the US. It seems that in the great White paternalistic tradition, Edgar ultimately wants to appear to have “saved” her.
It was surely no easy feat for Camille Mana to avoid lapsing into a cartoonish Asian woman stereotype, and does a decent job steering clear of that trap for most of the play. However, there were moments that the writing made a few Ricky Ricardo-esque accent-related jokes unavoidable. There was one particular running joke that made it more clear to me that Eisenberg perhaps doesn’t fully grasp what he’s lampooning—an anecdote recounted by Vinny and subsequent catchphrase really run into the ground about a Black woman who, as per Vinny, had a very neck-swinging and cartoonish way of asking, “Can I get some OJ?” At first, I thought it was just another way to expose Vinny for being a completely hypocritical and racist piece of shit, but as the catchphrase was continuously repeated for comic effect through the rest of the play, it was clear that we were supposed to somehow find this funny. How ironic, for a play that purports to expose White liberal racism, that we are supposed to laugh at a minstrel-show characterization of a Black woman. It was painful. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was meant in an examine-your-own prejudices sort of way—ergo, the self-indulgence became more and more unjustifiable to me, making it a virtual chore to give one single shit about these characters as the play wore on.
Watching this play sort of reminded me of the experience of sitting through a Wes Anderson movie; that moment when you realize that one of the more outlandish, White male main characters is actually the one steering the ship, as opposed to the one we’re supposed to be sort of repulsed by. Not to mention, the use of minorities as backdrops and accessories for delving further into the White characters we’re supposed to care about more, for some reason.
One New York Magazine quote was especially revealing in Eisenberg’s intentions:
“… [Edgar] immediately imbues [Asuncion] with victim status because he can only see the world in such black-and-white ways, where you’re either a victim or an oppressor, and if she comes from the Philippines, she must be the victim, and of course then he’s the oppressor. And he doesn’t know how to act here. So he patronizes her, and he condescends her, and ultimately he exploits her. And that’s kind of my attitude, on a smaller scale. That’s how I kind of treated people from other places.”
Though it’s important Eisenberg admits that racist paternalism is something he recognizes in himself, there just doesn’t seem to be enough distance and self-awareness as to what the underlying problem of his own hypocrisy is about. Because Eisenberg simply identifies the issue as opposed to analyzing it in any real way, the play is ultimately unsatisfying.
Asuncion is absolutely the good start of an idea. A good idea that really should’ve been massaged and fleshed out by someone more experienced (perhaps something he can do now that the play has completed its extended run at the Cherry Lane Theater), or just by some person other than Eisenberg, so as to avoid the self-indulgent pitfalls that really seemed to stem from being unnecessarily incubated for too long in one person’s brain. One cannot make a stimulating and provocative play when one is essentially just mentally masturbating all over the audience.
Follow Anna Graizbord on Twitter, @Annsganistan