Alongside a fruitful film career, it may come as a surprise that Jesse Eisenberg has time to publish a book of short stories, contribute regularly to The New Yorker, and bring his third and latest stage offering to London’s West End. But the result is a perfectly controlled, dysfunctional buddy comedy, where the ghosts of one young man’s childhood insist on haunting his every move.
The Spoils opened off-Broadway in 2015, and is comfortably reminiscent of the New York apartment sitcom – nowhere more apparent than in its acting talent. Kunyal Nayyar (Raj in The Big Bang Theory) plays the earnest Nepalese immigrant and economic analyst Kalyan. Without Raj’s nerd-based social anxieties and speech impediments, though, he’s free to ooze natural charm from start to finish. He’ll win you over, one PowerPoint presentation at a time.
Jesse Eisenberg’s cosmopolitan neurotic Ben, however, is a self-described renegade director who’s too busy blithely analysing his social interactions to make any movies; a modern-day misanthrope and pseudo-creative seemingly unable to find happiness in his comfortable but purposeless life. As his friends and acquaintances make small-talk, he storms into the niceties with the bluntness of a sledgehammer. “The most interesting characters are those who are difficult to like”, he says, going on to prove it in every scene.
The fun starts after Ben runs into an old classmate from junior high, dredging up the past with all of the unresolved vendettas and complex psychosexual obsessions that entails. The play rests on a conventional structure: all the action is in the upmarket apartment Ben’s father bought for him, mismatched friends clashing over loyalties, rent, and the eternal quest to win over the right girl. In this sense, it’s a traditional comedy of manners, but one that’s set firmly in the mindset of the millennial generation, retaining a freshness and force untempered by the old comic tropes underlying the story.
The satire is brutally sharp – if somewhat held back by some normative gender roles. But if Woody Allen was a neurotic for the age of psychoanalysis, Eisenberg is one for today’s unique brand of youthful angst and anxiety: plagued by self-doubt and paranoia, quick to judge and comment on others’ actions, socially aware but indifferent to suffering outside the Western world, resentful of the racial and class privilege that denies his desired underdog status and inclination towards self-pity. Everything about the character shouts 2015. Centred around the self-destructive pursuit of happiness by someone who might not deserve it, the story isn’t highly original, but it manages an undeniable authenticity and relevance to today’s younger generation.
The actor’s ongoing willingness to work with Allen (in the ensemble love story To Rome With Love and this year’s Cafe Society) has proved controversial amid the latter’s unsettled claims of sexual abuse, to the point of denying conversations he had on the matter. But it’s not hard to see how Eisenberg deliberately channels the similarly Jewish-American actor-writer’s style.
Starring in the lead role he wrote for himself, Eisenberg shows that only his own dialogue can make the most of his signature brand of nervous tics and high-speed chatter. Having made a name with his role as Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) and played Lex Luthor in this year’s Batman Vs Superman movie, it’s not the first time Eisenberg has played a brilliant but neurotic young man. But in his self-penned role as NYU-dropout Ben, he’s managed to make the type his own, carrying the punch of sardonic roles of movies past, with a torrent and force only a full-sized stage can give him. Ben monologues incessantly, with only brief breaks to catch his breath, smoke some weed, or to think through his next personal attack. Barely able to contain himself, Ben twitches, jitters, jumps, and quips his way across the stage with a mania and vitality unexpected from a film actor used to the camera adding the action for him.
The rest of the cast all play the foil to the startling charm of Ben’s vitriol and paranoia. Katie Brayben (King Charles III, American Psycho) excels as the joyful yet concerned teacher for troubled youths, Sarah, who Ben has never managed to forget. Despite Alfie Allen’s violent background in John Wick or Game of Thrones, his stable-but-dull Wall Street banker is the most easy-going among them, and therefore the easiest fodder. (The only thing more pathetic than being neurotic, we’re told, is not being neurotic at all.) Annapurna Sriram (Billions) brings a harder edge to the proceedings as Kalyan’s medical student girlfriend Reshma: she’s determined to work hard, play hard, and make sure she never compromises. They all have differing opinions of Ben, none of which are definitive; no matter how the play had ended, it would have been unclear whether he deserved the ending he got.
The real triumph of The Spoils is in this grey area, where its characters are recognisable as people first, and creations second. For a play so concerned with our past and the way we shape the stories that define us, Eisenberg has shown he knows how to do just that.
By Henry St Leger
The Spoils by Jesse Eisenberg
June 14 2016 – August 13 2016