We gave it a B
Jesse Eisenberg certainly knows how to get the most out of an apartment setting. The actor-slash-playwright set his first play, 2011’s Asuncion, in an unkempt one, and put his second, 2013’s The Revisionist, in a tiny Polish one. The Spoils, his latest off-Broadway offering currently playing at NYC’s Signature Theatre Pershing Square, takes place in another —notably, much nicer—apartment (aptly designed by Derek McLane), this time in New York’s Lower Manhattan.
That’s not the only thread his plays have in common: Eisenberg also likes making audiences hate his characters, or at least dislike them. In The Spoils, this happens in the form of his character Ben, a (yep) spoiled, neurotic, pot-smoking grad-school dropout. He claims to be a filmmaker, but the only job he seems to take seriously is verbally sparring with—and eventually offending— everyone around him.
Those people around him include a Nepalese-born, PowerPoint-loving roommate Kalyan (The Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar), an earnestly ambitious sort chasing an MBA and the American Dream; doctor Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), Kalyan’s high-maintenance girlfriend; teacher Sarah (Erin Darke), Ben’s lifelong crush; and Ted (Frances Ha’s Michael Zegen), the (gasp!) Wall Street bro Sarah is slated to marry. All are achievers, while Ben is not. His dad pays for his expensive apartment, where he lets Kalyan stay rent-free. In fact, his whole life is more or less paid for. Eisenberg seems most interested in this aspect—how Ben, the picture of white-male privilege, justifies his existence to himself.
This is typically accomplished by insulting and condescending to anyone unlucky enough to enter his orbit, making it loudly clear that he finds their ambition boring and beneath him—an obvious method of masking that creeping sense of failure. But soon he finds another route: he decides to win over Sarah before she marries Ted. He’s pined for her since childhood, and making her love him could make up for all of his other unfulfilled promises. It’s the nadir of selfishness.
But The Spoils isn’t just a moral play, it’s also a comic one, and that’s when it’s at its best. With a strong This Is Our Youth-like streak running through it (interestingly, The New Group, who produced this effort, also originally produced Youth), the script’s strengths lie in its crackling dialogue and tête-à-têtes. The banter packs a solid dinner party’s worth of wit and poignancy (in fact, much of the play takes place during a tense Nepalese-themed supper) and Nayyar and Zegen make their lines sing especially well; they’re both top-notch chatters. Sriram also shines brightly but subtly—Reshma is a bit of a pill, but one worth taking thanks to the actress’s deft work.
While the idea of an unlikable protagonist pushing everyone away isn’t a novel one, Eisenberg uses it to take the audience to some interesting, even enjoyable places. But it’s also one of those plays where, within the first 10 minutes, you know exactly how it’s going to end. The Spoils doesn’t possess many surprises, but unlike Eisenberg’s protagonist, it still achieves a lot of its potential. B