Jesse Eisenberg is a Woody Allen for the 21st century. He stars in movies, writes plays, writes for The New Yorker and publishes fiction (a new volume will be out soon). Becoming a film auteur is probably next on his agenda. Eisenberg's work is darker, more disturbing than Allen's. His persona in his recent plays is a twenty-something Jewish slacker. In THE SPOILS, this slacker isn't the amiable stoner of movies. He's a nasty piece of work. THE SPOILS starts in sitcom territory--particularly evident since the first person we see, in a conversation with his girlfriend in a set that places us in sitcom land (an apartment living room), is BIG BANG THEORY star Kunal Nayyar, having a sitcom-style conversation with his girlfriend (Annapurna Sriram). Nayyar's character Kalyan, a Nepalese MBA student, is telling Reshma, an Indian-American medical intern, that he loves her because she pretends to like football. Everything seems comfortable and cute until Ben (Eisenberg), Kalyan's roommate, enters. Actually Ben's father pays for the apartment and Ben refuses to accept rent money from Kalyan. Eisenberg is a very physical actor and his Ben is like an agent of chaos. He can't sit still for for than a moment before he is stalking his territory. He doesn't so much sit as hurl his slight frame onto furniture. He talks a mile a minute. He is hostile to Reshma and possessive, almost seductive with Kalyan, his only friend, whom he treats with a physical intimacy that borders on gay, but really is the physical affection one offers a pet. Ben claims to be a film auteur, but doesn't seem to have made anything. How can someone who is empty inside create anything? His primary occupation seems to be smoking dope. We're still in sitcom territory here, but with a disturbing undercurrent.
On this day, Ben is upset because he has discovered that Sarah, a girl he had a crush on when he was eight is getting married to another elementary school acquaintance, Ted, a stockbroker. Ben tells Kalyan a bizarre scatological dream he had about the girl when they were eight. The audience laughs out of shock -- it's a real gross out dream -- but the dream is the closest thing to a true erotic-romantic experience Ben has had and he becomes fixated on it and the notion of winning Sarah back. In the process, Ben becomes more of a destructive force, though most of the people around him try to remain kind and sympathetic to him.
Drama and serious television are full of fascinating scoundrels--think HOUSE OF CARDS, MAD MEN or BREAKING BAD or Shakespeare's RICHARD III or MACBETH. Francis Underwood and Don Draper are interesting because they can make people love them as well as hate them. Unfortunately, Ben is never really likeable. In contemporary parlance, he has no boundaries. Kalyan stays loyal almost to the end because Kalyan is an extremely nice person who is programmed to be loyal. The audience's laughter is more out of shock and discomfort than amusement. So we watch an obnoxious character become increasingly obnoxious, even pathological. The four characters who have to suffer his insults and bizarre behavior tend to engage in uninteresting banter. Perhaps we are to see Ben's acting out as at least more interesting than the conversation of his companions, but at least they are basically decent people who have have careers and aspirations and want to connect meaningfully to others.
The cast plays all this naturalistically--no sitcom exaggeration here. I saw an early preview, but the sense of ensemble was strong. Eisenberg has the ability to seem to be improvising even in scripted drama (of course, scripted by him). Kunal Nayyar shows more range than he see from him on television but equally as much charm. Michael Zegen is sweet and funny as the nice doofus Ted. Erin Darke is both sweet and strong as Sarah and Annapurna Sriram captures Reshma's toughness and her vivacity. Scott Elliott has paced the production masterfully.
I saw an early preview and thought the script needed some editing, which is hard for the playwright to do when he is onstage the entire time and not out watching. Characters describe their feelings too much. Reshma doesn't have to tell Kalyan, for the audience's benefit, that he's a nice guy. We can see that. Nor does she have to tell Ben she can't stand him. We certainly see that without her saying a word. The end needs to be sharpened a bit.
It's a pleasure to see such good acting. I'm not sure I can say that it's a pleasure to spend two hours watching Ben misbehave. The dream that obsesses him shows that he's a guy who gets off on people shitting on him, metaphorically if not literally (perhaps literally as well), and he does all he can to provoke them to do so. It's a courageous, uncompromising portrait, but I have a feeling that I was not alone in controlling my urge to scream to Ben's housemate and guests, "Run for your lives!"
THE SPOILS by Jesse Eisenberg. The New Group at the Signature Theatre Center. May 15, 2015.