Jesse Eisenberg Recasts Himself As a Playwright in The Revisionist
Cowboy Pizza anchors Clinton Street’s southernmost cluster of gentrification, about a block away from the La Guardia Houses. Its distressed picnic tables, soundtrack by Bon Iver, and framed photos of the bad old Lower East Side might recall the set of your typical Jesse Eisenberg vehicle, and in fact it’s one of the actor’s favorite lunch spots. Nervously cradling a slice on a recent frigid Sunday, he’s wearing the same navy cap, two-tone hoodie, and maroon New Balances his character dons in The Revisionist, Eisenberg’s second outing as a playwright. Co-starring with him is a more uptown class of celebrity, Vanessa Redgrave.
Eisenberg and I had our first, wide-ranging chat two days earlier in a Cherry Lane Theater dressing room—maybe too wide-ranging, because this time he’s brought along a chaperone. His close friend Lee, 43 to Eisenberg’s 29*, shakes hands and ebulliently offers his last name: “G as in gorgeous, A as in amazing, B as in booyah, A as in … amazing, Y as in yes!” Eisenberg and Gabay met through their mutual friend, the actor Paul Dano. They spend most of their time together watching basketball, talking about basketball, and playing basketball. “Jesse has a good offensive game, but his defense could be fixed,” says Gabay, who’s taken to calling me “Bo.” “His rebounding skills are terrible.” Judging by his performance in interviews, Gabay seems best at blocking and running out the clock.
“I’m trying to protect the instrument,” Eisenberg parries, in the blinky, rapid-fire patter so familiar to fans of the archetypal Eisenberg role. He’s made his career as the younger alter ego of a parade of geek auteurs—The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, Adventureland’s Greg Mottola, Woody Allen in To Rome With Love—culminating in the Oscar-nominated part of a real-life geek, Mark Zuckerberg, in The Social Network. Now, as a playwright, he’s written two avatars of his own, both of whom he’s played himself: pathetic, sycophantic Edgar in 2011’s Asuncion and pathetic, selfish David in The Revisionist. Gabay paints a picture of the real Eisenberg as a brainy Everyman, more confident than his characters but no cockier than the average urban creative. “One thing that really says who he is: I remember on Oscar Night, when the other dude won, he sent me a text—”
“Wait, wait, what did I say?” Eisenberg interjects. Gabay whispers into his ear. “Oh, okay.” Eisenberg gives the go-ahead. “He said, ‘I just want to remind you to feed my cat.’ And then he said—can I say the rest?” More whispering. “Then he said, ‘I was gonna remind you in a speech, but I was denied.’ That was cute.”
Gabay is clearly here to run interference, even at risk to his own “instrument.” When I bring up a big no-no—the older woman with whom Eisenberg lives in Chelsea—both of their eyes widen. When I ask if Eisenberg wants a family, he says, “Yeah, sure, yeah—and you?” seeming almost genuinely curious.
“If she’s mentioned, she gets mad at him—or me,” Gabay says, cutting us both off. “But that’s my problem with Angelica,” he adds—of his girlfriend, a pianist and yogi. “I want a family, and she doesn’t.”
After Gabay leaves, Eisenberg fiddles absently with a pen I’ve left on the table. Eventually, he brings up our earlier interview. “I don’t know what I’m doing here really,” he says. “I felt bad the other day after we left. I felt really guilty all night. Why did I say that stuff? Why did I talk about myself and my life? No one wants to know—maybe they do want to know, but I don’t want them to know … I wish I didn’t have to—I’m sorry. Yeah. And I shouldn’t have this kind of—yeah, it’s embarrassing, even now. Yeah, right.” He sniffs his artisanal pizza. He studies the pen. “I’m wondering whether I can extricate myself.” He runs out of words.
It says a lot about Eisenberg—his extreme decency and his extreme neurosis—that the avatars he’s created for the stage are sadder and less admirable than the sly, nebbishy parts he’s played in movies. But that’s always been the fascinating paradox of