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The Spoils

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jesse Eisenberg and Kunal Nayyar
Photo by Monique Carboni

There is no weapon that's not in Ben's arsenal. Deflection. Deceit. Derision. Belittlement. Humor (on occasion). Heck, even outright racism if it will get the job done. So well armed is he, and so fanatical about going after what he wants, that you might think he couldn't be anything other than a raging success. But no: This already-withering twentysomething is reduced to living in an apartment his rich father bought for him, and living in the distant past because he doesn't see the present as holding anything for him at all. His life has barely begun, but to him, it's already over.

Given that Ben is the most compelling figure in, and the white-hot center of, Jesse Eisenberg's biting but too-chewy new play at the Pershing Square Signature Center, it's hardly surprising that Eisenberg has reserved just that role in Scott Elliott's production for The New Group. Eisenberg may still be best known for his Hollywood work (foremost his turn as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), but he's made something of a second name for himself playing these sorts of wayward lingering-adolescents in his own Off-Broadway plays (Asuncion, The Revisionist) about clashing worlds that can't entirely pierce self-satisfied bubbles of disaffected ennui.

The sheer gusto with which Eisenberg has written and plays Ben brands the young man as Eisenberg's most vivid character to date. Someone who starts off looking like a jerk-for-jerk's-sake is slowly but totally revealed as someone who's masking an immense amount of pain behind his violent façade. (Rest assured, this isn't spoiling much, as the seeds for this are planted not long into the two-act play's first scene.) What you can't understand until you've seen the whole thing, however, is the depth of Ben's agony and its associated depravity, qualities that Eisenberg highlights on both the page and the stage with a gripping indifference that makes bloodily clear how far gone he already is and why stepping back from the edge is probably almost impossible.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kunal Nayyar joined by Erin Darke, Michael Zegen, and Annapurna Sriram
Photo by Monique Carboni

Eisenberg builds the tension gradually, beginning by showing us his everyday interactions with the people around him. For example: To his roommate, Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), an acclaimed author from Nepal who's trying to build a new life in the U.S., he's at once playful and demeaning, demonstrating enormous affection while mocking his awkwardness, his penchant for PowerPoint, and his hypersensitive social awareness. Nor is he much better around Kalyan's doctor girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), forcing the pair to behave, talk, and even kiss exactly how he thinks they should, and, so it seems, breaking down their entire beings to little more than their skin color.

His own problem, earlier that day meeting an elementary school friend named Ted who's now a successful banker and about to marry the girl Ben's always had a crush on, must necessarily take precedence. So when he reconnects later with Ted (Michael Zegen), it doesn't take long for what at first appears to be an ordinary extension of his brashness to become darker and scarier. He tramples on Kalyan by claiming as his own Kalyan's idea for an independent documentary Ben should make. He begins breaking down and reorganizing Ted's relationship with his fiancée, Sarah (Erin Darke), so that by the time we finally meet her, Ted is on the emotional defensive, with his every word scrutinized and his every action looking like desperate attempts to stay relevant after another power player has entered the room.

By the time all five of them gather for dinner (a non-traditional "traditional" Nepalese spread, prepared by Kalyan), Ben's basic plans are well underway and then he gets really nasty, with each new tactic surpassing most of those that came before. Acts such as twisting the others' selfless stories into models of selfishness and shaming Ted at every turn (he even claims the two of them, at Ted's instigation, killed one of their classmates) become like declaring open warfare. The full, wide-ranging scope of its devastation not fully visible until Act II, when Ben finally tries to claim for himself the one thing he wants most, but there's a fearlessness to his approach that precisely defines Ben and energizes The Spoils just when it needs it most.

Things are more sluggish elsewhere. Eisenberg hints at broader themes, particularly of race, that never jell into the significance you crave for something to. Worse, none of the other characters is remotely as interesting as Ben. Though Nayyar (TV's The Big Bang Theory) invests Kalyan with a cuddly likability that nicely calcifies under Ben's attacks, he seems more one-dimensional and less brilliant than the script indicates he should. Aside from her snippy quips with Ben and a harrowing physical exchange with him near the end, Reshma is thinly sketched and sounds at most one braying note; Sriram plays it well, but it gets a bit tiresome. Sarah is an attractive prospect for Ben and Ted alike because she needs to be, but neither Eisenberg nor Darke, the latter doing her sympathetic best, lets us see why. Only Zegen (Bad Jews) creates a complete personality, though the nervously eager-to-please frat boy he's carved doesn't leave him anywhere to go.

Though the physical production is just right, Elliott's work is marred somewhat by dead patches in the pacing; a tighter, more relentless feel throughout would up the urgency and better propel us into the brutal final scene. Though Eisenberg does not end it gracefully—he barely ends it at all, in fact—it's a juicy culmination of most what's come before, yanking us about as far as we can go into the shadowy reaches of Ben's unsettling mind. The centerpiece of the scene, in which Ben describes to Sarah a dream he had about her some 20 years earlier, is an eerie marvel of scatological storytelling that could well go down as a poetic, if stomach-turning, highlight in Eisenberg's dramatic-writing career.

It's unquestionably disgusting in its particulars (which won't even be acknowledged here), but there's also something sweetly romantic, even endearing, about it, as though the essential innocence it suggests is just as much a part of Ben's psyche as his warped-mind capacity to disturb. Eisenberg is showing us every angle of this man, even (especially?) those we might otherwise demand not to see. The rest of The Spoils may not live up to this audacity, but his daring to show us Ben at his most naked and most helpless lets us view from a terrifyingly close vantage point the dangers of living too much in your own id rather than the less predictable and less satisfying, but far more dangerous, world of the others we depend on to keep us from becoming our own worst selves.

The Spoils
Through June 28
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
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