As a movie actor, Jesse Eisenberg is going from playing a jerk (Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) to a supervillain (Lex Luthor in next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.) But in The Spoils, as with his two previous Off-Broadway plays (such as the rude, self-involved pothead and young but over-the-hill novelist he played opposite Vanessa Redgrave in The Revisionist), Eisenberg is sticking with depicting a jerk.
The character he has written for himself, Ben, is an NYU film school dropout who lives in an apartment his father paid for, spends his days getting high and teasing and taunting his only friend, his roommate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar, from The Big Bang Theory), a polite, gentle immigrant from Nepal who is in business school and hopes to get a job on Wall Street. In the name of trying to help Kalyan, Ben embarrasses him in front of Kalyan’s girlfriend, a medical student named Reshma (Annapurna Sriram, of The Happiest Song Plays Last.”)
Ben runs into a primary school classmate, Ted ( Michael Zegen, who played Bugsy Siegel in Boardwalk Empire), who works on Wall Street, and is marrying Sarah (Erin Darke), who by coincidence was Ben’s first and only crush.
Ben conspires to get Sarah back, arranging a dinner party that doesn’t go the way he had hoped. He then lies to Sarah about a film project in order to get her alone. When that backfires as well, he turns from obnoxious to outright cruel.
Eisenberg can be an entertaining playwright. Here for example is an exchange between Ben and Kalyan, in which Ben puts down what Ted does for a living:
Ben: ….for a Jewish kid from the suburbs, and I’m speaking as a Jewish kid from the suburbs, it’s not interesting and it’s a shitty way to make a living. Listen, it’s like if I was born in Nepal like you, and I wanted to be a Sherpa or a Gurkha or a Parka or whatever, that would be like an easy way out, right?
Kalyan: Gurkhas are considered the preeminent fighting squad in the world.
Ben: And I’m sure they’re great but –
Kalyan: And Sherpas can summit Everest without oxygen.
Ben: Again, a great accomplishment–
Kalyan: Parkas keep you insulated from a cold breeze.
Ben: That’s cute…
Eisenberg also plants the intriguing suggestion that, unlike other obnoxious people, Ben — racist, dishonest, smug, destructive — is actually trying to be repellent. Why? Is it to punish himself? Is it his way of making connection (Ben at several moments is all over Kayyan physically, touching and hugging as if flirting.) Is it, in a weird way, an act of generosity, so the people around him look better by contrast?
As an actor and as a playwright, Eisenberg is indeed generous to those around him.
Director Scott Elliot has assembled a first-rate cast to portray Eisenberg’s characters, and the playwright gives them both some great lines and some meaty emotional moments. Nayyar in particular is wonderful to watch.
But after The Spoils has ended, a long two hours and 20 minutes after it has begun, what one is primarily left with is the hope that Eisenberg will keep on writing, but be kinder to the characters he portrays — not because it’s the decent thing to do, but because it will deepen his work.
The New Group at Signature Center
By Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Scott Elliott
Set Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski, Sound Design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen and Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky
Cast: Erin Darke as Sarah, Jesse Eisenberg as Ben, Kunal Nayyar as Kalyan, Annapurna Sriram as Reshma and Michael Zegen as Ted.
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
The Spoils is scheduled to run through June 28.