Is "Asuncion" Spanish for 'Awesome'? It should be...

After a (well-deserved) extension, Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion (yes, apparently, our favorite Mark Zuckerberg is a writer) ended yesterday at the Cherry Lane theater. Where do I get the petition circulating for a Broadway transfer? I kind of loved this one.

Not that it was without its flaws; in fact, there was only one, maybe two things I can point out as being sub-par. However, considering this is Eisenberg’s first soirée into writing, MAJOR kudos to him for providing something fresh and amusing.

Enter the premise. Edgar (Eisenberg), a former political/world journalist-turned-nothing, hauls up daily in Vinny’s disgusting, marijuana-laced apartment. Vinny (Justin Bartha), Edgar’s former African studies teacher’s assistant, has this aura of apathy towards Edgar that occasional leads to open loathing. Their relationship reaches a breaking point as Asuncion (Camille Mana), Edgar’s brother’s new Filipino wife, stays with them one weekend. Her presence peaks Edgar’s interest beyond simply getting to know his sister-in-law, whereas Vinny’s flirtation and interest in her causes a disturbance in the already poisonous relationship between him and Edgar.

The characters and relationships were a homerun here, especially because the storyline progression hinged on it. Where it stumbled was in Asuncion’s arrival and her presence. While I recognize that she was the impetus to stir up the pot in Vinny and Edgar’s relationship, they played her off as ‘mysterious’ and intriguing by not disclosing anything about her. It did draw me in and it gave the show a hook - who is this Asuncion, why did Stuart (Edgar’s brother) marry her and why is she hiding out in Vinny’s apartment? However, her reveal at the end - her origins, family and why Stuart dropped her off at Vinny’s apartment - was ULTRA effing lame. Talk about a throwaway; for a character and a relationship study, it was weird that the much-hyped and sought after truth was an uninspired afterthought. In fact, from that point on – namely, the last minutes of the final act – the show went into a downward tailspin.

But that’s it; the rest of it is just about as great as you can find in an Off-Broadway show. I love love love the themes and messages of the show as displayed through watching the interplay of Edgar, Vinny and Asuncion. Edgar, having stumbled to Cambodia by accident and spent two days there, thinks he is post-modern, intelligent and above it all when it comes to world affairs. The apparent reality: he is not as intelligent as he thinks and he is somewhat racist and judgmental.

Awkward Jesse!
Enter a very sly comment on the post-modern 21st Century. Edgar, with no writing job and his blog long deceased, does nothing but soak up in his entitlement. Sure, he spent two days in Cambodia (by accident); does that make him a connoisseur? He represents all of us under-30s who read and research a lot from a distance and behind the safety of their computers. He thinks he knows all the angles, but his knowledge is more limited then he would admit given he does not pursue any traveling or experience first hand. If that does not sum up this generation, I do not know what does.

Scenes with Edgar and Asuncion are not really played for laughs, but given how oblivious Edgar comes off in a social setting, it was really funny to watch. He assumes Asuncion speaks Spanish given what her name is. Given his animosity towards Stuart, he is convinced that he ‘purchased’ Asuncion and that she is a sex slave. A portion of the show is Edgar observing Asuncion, him trying to goad her into giving him a tell-all of everything she is, scribbling notes in his journal with the idea of writing an expose on the current status of human trafficking.

There is a stereotype and racial component thrown into the mix. When Edgar gets robbed in the beginning of the show, he defends the robbers on account of they came from a poor neighborhood and upbringing. Add that to his increasing judgments of Asuncion and…well, it is somewhat of an (accurate) observation on how the world cannot help but act on stereotypes. Even better, it reflects how oblivious we are in how we perceive others. There were plenty of moments where you cringe thinking, “oh crap…I have said things like that before too.”

Look how not awkward I am being!
Oh wait...
It really was an interesting dynamic to witness, especially because the bubbly, sweet and thick-accented Asuncion just wanted to have fun and live out the weekend care-free. Whether it was dancing to a pop song in the Ke-Dollar Sign-Ha Ke$ha mold (a funny perspective of how foreigners view America, hahaha), eating McDonalds or just having a blast with Vinny, she clearly was not meant to give Edgar what he wanted. I can’t help but love the irony of Asuncion, while naïve, is more socially competent and outgoing then Edgar.

Let’s talk about the character of Vinny…super laid back with a smarmy charm and sex appeal, how he treats and co-exists with Asuncion is far better then he does with Edgar. We are led to believe that Edgar’s interest in him stems from some homosexual feelings (which leads to some scene, more later) towards Vinny, but Vinny’s mistreatment of Edgar seems to be an unjustified reaction to his flaws. There is a moment in the second act where Edgar flat out asks, “do you even like me?” Vinny’s response, where he basically calls out Edgar on all of his stuff,  comes from a place of unbiased awareness, not cold-hearted intent. Beneath an apathetic exterior, Vinny does like Edgar even if the attention he gives him suggests otherwise.

Before I address the UH-MAZ-ING performances, let’s talk about the comedy. Namely, most of the dialogue was sharply written, drawings laughs on a pretty consistent basis. One of the funniest things I have ever seen was Edgar talking about his lack of sex in the past few months and how he has turned to masturbation. Every time I went to let loose a loud guffaw, his mini-monologue would not let up. He just kept going on and on, for what seemed like a solid five minutes, but was probably only a minute. But the whole show is peppered with a lot of one-liners and zingers; absolutely hilarious.

Now, the acting…Eisenberg was great, but that is no surprise. That awkward, nerdy, socially messed-up shtick he has been flocking for years is his thing. I would criticize him for playing a version of himself, but he does do it well. Besides, he brought a fully-realized performance to his character on stage (as opposed to film/television), I will give him the credit he deserves. Mana, amidsts her two acting heavyweight costars, was adorable and conveyed Asuncion’s nuances and thick accent like it was second-nature. Seriously; speaking to her afterwards, her talking voice was miles away from the accent the character sported on stage…that’s an actress right there!

In my eyes though, Bartha knocked it out of the park. Yes, everyone knows him as Doug from The Hangover series or maybe Riley in the National Treasure series (or one of his other supporting roles), but that man can lead a show. No matter where he was on the (appropriately disgusting and well done) stage, he seemed to pull focus to him and win over the audience with his blunt observations, hilarious comedic delivery and his charismatic dancing and goofiness (when he was not being a laid-back stoner). Bartha also happens to be very sweet and humble; I could not stop complimenting him on his performance afterwards. Especially with what was coursing through my mind at the time; the homosexual-esque scene that I have teased – well, strap on your seatbelts.

During a scene where Edgar, Vinny and Asuncion were going nuts while doing heavy acid, Edgar begins talking about how, out of his affection for Vinny, he should suck his “thing.” Vinny, in his underwear while wearing an open robe, agrees and pushes that agenda. Edgar, even under acid, seems to realize what he is pledging and decides to back down. A struggle erupts with Vinny forcefully jamming Edgar’s head into his crotch against Edgar’s will and there was screaming and loud noises and Asuncion shrieking and Vinny getting more angry and agressive and Edgar having the fear of God on his face while on his knees… and…and…and

Talk about a mindfu** of a scene, one of the best I have ever seen movies, television and theater all considered. It was something so disturbing and brilliantly bizarre (and impeccably done, all the awards for the actors) that I turned to my friend Tristan with wide-eyed shock all over my face while cupping my mouth with both hands..and stil mouthing WTF?!?. I literally cannot unsee it; I walked around my house for three days, while Facebooking and texting in a British accent “I can’t unsee it.”

I think that says it all. That scene, the fantastic performances, the interesting characters and interplay, the comedic bits, the relevant themes/messages, the overall show…I am on Team Eisenberg now (from a writing standpoint) and would love to see this show resurface again. I have gone on Twitter record during the #BestOf2011 Theater hash tag saying it was one of my favorite shows this year. I meant every word; mission accomplished Eisenberg, stay awkward classy.

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