Written by Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Scott Elliott
The title of writer/actor Jesse Eisenberg’s new meditation on contemporary culture is open to interpretation. THE SPOILS, as in “spoils of war” appears to be a reference to the privilege we, as Westerners, enjoy as a result of our military and economic position in the world. It’s also an apt description of its central character, an obnoxious rich kid who is favored by society yet can’t seem to find his place in it.
Ben (Eisenberg), lives in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment his prosperous father has bought for him. Though he’s intelligent and full of energy, he can’t seem to find the right outlet for his drive. Repulsed by the business world, Ben has tried to follow a more artistic path. But his short stint at NYU Film School didn’t go so well. Now, he pretty much just sits around smoking weed and lying about some cinematic opus he’s working on. His roommate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar) is quite the opposite. A business student, Kalyan is eager to participate in the great American profit-making machine. He believes (perhaps naively) that it can be used for good instead of evil. He’s also warm, engaging and accomplished (in his home country of Nepal, he was a respected author).
Kalyan is hopelessly devoted to his girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram) while Ben pines for his childhood crush Sarah Newburg (Erin Darke). There’s little chance of their being together, though, as Sarah has just gotten engaged to bourgeois banker Ned (Michael Zegen), who is also a grade school acquaintance of Ben’s. Sneering at the banality of Ned’s life choices, Ben concocts a plan to drive a wedge between him and Sarah. He and Kalyan host a dinner party for Ned and Sarah, during which Ben attempts to win points by peppering the conversation with snide comments. The plan backfires as Kalyan discovers he has a lot more in common with Ben’s friends than with Ben himself. Left out of the new clique, Ben ratchets up his tactics. As his despair deepens, his behavior escalates from ordinary obnoxiousness to a full-blown conflagration. Counteroffensives follow, and layers of civility are scorched away to reveal long-hidden truths.
As annoying as Ben is, its hard not to empathize with him on some level. He’s stuck. He can’t recapture his childhood, nor does he want any part of the drab hamster wheel we call the adult world. Even so, his unpleasantness proves a bit much over the course of two acts. The play might benefit from less stage time devoted to Ben’s rants and more to Kalyan, whose internal conflicts are equally compelling. Still, the script’s occasional excesses are outweighed by its blend of comic energy and raw, uncomfortably real emotion. Eisenberg’s dialogue is fresh, clever and insightful, and vibrates with the cadences of contemporary speech. Under Scott Elliott’s sensitive direction, the actors are keyed in to each other and navigate the plots twists with spontaneity and grace. Derek McLane’s detailed set neatly frames the action and embodies the affluent world that both protects and smothers its inhabitants.
THE SPOILS continues through June 28 at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street New York, NY 10036 Tickets and information: thenewgroup.org