The Revisionist: Behold Vanessa Redgrave, Eighth Wonder of the World

03/13/2013 4:00 AM |

The Revisionist
Cherry Lane Theatre

Vanessa Redgrave is the greatest living actress working in the English language, and I feel no need to qualify that considered declaration with “to my mind” or “arguably.” Her nearest competitors, Meryl Streep and Maggie Smith, are certainly her equals on a technical level, but neither of them matches her elemental emotion, her empathy, her blazing-hot imagination, or her epic reach. In the intimate confines of the Cherry Lane Theatre, where she is appearing in The Revisionist, a play written by her costar Jesse Eisenberg (through April 21), Redgrave’s gifts appear so outsized that watching her is like being hit after a day of rain by rays of sun bursting out from behind the clouds. The temptation I felt was just to stare at her and gape as I would at any natural wonder, at some mountain range or waterfall. It’s difficult to judge Eisenberg’s modest but tender play as a play because Redgrave so transfigures it.

David (Eisenberg), a struggling young writer, visits his Polish cousin Maria (Redgrave). They’re at cross-purposes: he wants quiet to work on an overdue manuscript, and she longs to spend time with him. David is a modern young American man, glib but smart enough to recognize his own lack of proper feeling, while Maria comes from a slower and heavier era. When David asks Maria about losing her entire immediate family to the Nazis, she tells him about it in a disarmingly casual way at first, but then she gets up and staggers across her kitchen, standing motionless for a moment by her refrigerator and then pulling herself up, straightening her shoulders as much as she possibly can (Maria walks with a slight stoop). What is great acting? The way Redgrave resolutely straightens her hunched shoulders by that refrigerator, a whole life expressed in a single gesture.

There are many other overwhelming moments like that in her work here, but none is as unforgettable as the sensual abandon she evokes when she lets her younger lover Zenon (Daniel Oreskes) shave her legs. Redgrave is 76 years old, and surely there is no other actress of that age who could give herself over so fully to a moment of pure eroticism without raising the shamed hackles of audience embarrassment—she opens her whole large frame up to Zenon’s loving attention, shamelessly radiating the animal pleasure Maria takes in how good her body can still make her feel. Eisenberg makes a nicely contrasting staccato partner to Redgrave’s legato brio, and he gives her ample room to create, for he knows full well how lucky he is that she agreed to be in his play at this venerable but small theater. Redgrave has nothing left to prove and she has everything to give. Do whatever you can to get a ticket.

Photo by Sandra Coudert

One Comment

  • You’re not alone, Tennesse Williams said it decades ago. Personally, I can’t think of another actor – male or female – who is more versatile. She goes from doing Shakespeare and Chekhov on stage to then making Art House films like Blow Up and Isadora. Gives us scene stealing turns in summer blockbusters like Mission Impossible and Deep Impact then transports us to the past in with her performances in Period dramas like Howards End and The Bostonians. Sbe is truly a limitless actress and I can’t think of anyone who can match her today in the English speaking theatre. Formidable actress.