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[media-credit name=”Photo by Sandra Coudert ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Jesse Eisenberg and Camille Mana in Eisenberg’s “Asuncion.”


Strong women at center of two Off-Broadway productions

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE  |  The momentary relief one gets laughing at one-liners in Jesse Eisenberg’s new play “Asuncion” are insufficient to compensate for its fatal weaknesses.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which moved into the Cherry Lane for this production, is clearly trying to capitalize on the celebrity Eisenberg earned from his Oscar-nominated and affectless portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” Unfortunately, his would-be comedy is characterized by contorted plotting and weak structure that ultimately undermine a supposedly earnest attempt at social criticism. For any comedy to work, there needs to be a modicum of plausibility, even when situations are over-the-top.

Edgar is a would-be journalist, post-grad slacker living with Vinny, a former college teaching assistant of his that he idolizes, in a dumpy apartment in upstate Binghamton. Edgar’s older, financially successful brother, Stuart, arrives and announces he’s married to a Filipino woman named Asuncion whom for reasons he can’t divulge must stay with Edgar and Vinny.

In an irrational mental leap, Edgar immediately decides his brother bought Asuncion and is keeping her as a sex slave. Hoping to make his name as a journalist, he sets about to expose this nightmare, while Vinny and Asuncion discover they like to party together. Fearful of further “oppressing” Asuncion, however, Edgar cannot bring himself to ask her any direct questions and so flounders in his mission. When the truth of Asuncion’s situation emerges, he becomes even more disengaged from those around him.

To give Eisenberg the benefit of the doubt, he may be trying to make a comment about how modern media culture blows stories out of proportion based on emotion rather than facts. The idea is hardly original but could prove engaging if presented in a novel way. But Eisenberg’s play is unfocused, even sketchy, so Edgar comes across not as tragically mistaken, but rather simply nuts.

Why can’t Asuncion stay at a hotel? Why does Vinny put up with Edgar as a roommate who sleeps on a beanbag chair? The answers could provide the details that make comedy work. Do we really need an LSD trip to get characters to tell the truth?  That’s really the last refuge of a stuck playwright.

Worse, Eisenberg doesn’t even end the play — it just stops. It’s never a good sign that the audience knows to clap only when the actors appear for the curtain call.

The rare pleasures of this production are the performances by Justin Bartha as Vinny and Camille Mana as Asuncion. They both have charisma and energy that overcome the weak script. Remy Auberjonois as Stuart is fine in a one-dimensional part.

Eisenberg as Edgar gives a manic version of his “Social Network” performance. He shows courage in writing himself a thoroughly unappealing character and offers some glimmers of comic timing but can’t overcome his flat line readings and inability to connect with other actors.

Director Kip Fagan’s ability to keep all this moving at a good clip provides some relief, but not nearly enough.

Aside from John Cheever, no writer knew the mid-20th century WASP like A.R. Gurney. The 1970 play “Children” brings the two together in Gurney’s adaptation of Cheever’s story about a family facing crisis. Like most of Cheever, the story has a deceptive gentleness, and the tensions and passions that stir beneath the surface enliven the storytelling.

After the death of a family’s patriarch, his wife considers remarrying, but if she does the ancestral home will go to her three children. One of them wants to sell out, but that would be a hardship for all of them. From this simple plot, Gurney spins a tale about morality, choices, and the costs and traps they entail. A home on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket — we’re not sure which — provides the metaphor, but the drama is far more universal.

TACT, the Actors Company Theatre, is giving the play its first major revival since 1974, and under the direction of Scott Alan Evans it’s a fluid, finely nuanced, and wonderfully observed snapshot of a family at risk. Set designer Brett J. Banakis has created an evocative summer cottage deck where the action takes place.

Gurney crafts the play so that only four of the characters ever appear — siblings Randy and Barbara, Mother and Randy’s wife Jane. Through them we see the history of the family, its current tensions, and most importantly the challenges created by the arrival of black sheep brother Pokey and his family. The unaccustomed upheaval brought on by their actions — everything from serving children Coke with meals to wearing non-preppy clothes and threatening to force the sale of the house, all unseen — has a nearly seismic impact on everyone.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Richard Thieriot and Margaret Nichols as Randy and Barbara are completely believable as siblings, down to the subtle ways they push each other’s buttons. Lynn Wright is charming as Jane, prodded by Pokey’s wife to rethink her life. Darrie Lawrence as Mother is superb, giving a rich and detailed performance.

This is a warm production of a play without a lot of bells and whistles, but don’t let that fool you. It’s intensely human and the stakes are high, and that’s what makes it so appealing as theater.

Rattlestick Theater at the Cherry Lane
38 Commerce St., btwn. Barrow & Bedford Sts.
Through Nov. 27, Wed.-Sat. at 8pm, Sat at 2pm; Sun. at 3pm
$75; ovationtix.com Or 212-352-3101

TACT at the Beckett Theatre
410 W. 42nd St.
Through Nov. 20, Tue.-Thu. at 7:30pm, Fri.-Sat. at 8pm, Sat., Sun. at 2pm
$56.25; telecharge.com Or 212-239-6200