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You have to give Jesse Eisenberg credit for his lack of vanity. The actor has been somewhat typecast in Hollywood playing deeply neurotic, intellectual characters who are also pricks, something he honed to perfection in his Oscar-nominated performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and one he’ll surely exploit to popular effect in his upcoming turn as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg is also a prolific playwright, having already written two works in which he also starred in New York productions: Asuncion and The Revisionist. But rather than deviate from his familiar persona, he instead creates theatrical characters who are equally obnoxious and repellant, none more so than the one he plays in his latest effort The Spoils, currently receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s The New Group.
In this work, directed by Scott Elliott, Eisenberg plays Ben, a self-described filmmaker who’s never actually made any films. Having been kicked out of graduate school, he lives in a spacious and elegant NYC apartment, paid for by his father, with his Nepalese friend Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar of The Big Bang Theory), whom he charges no rent.
Barging in on Kalyan while he’s giving a PowerPoint presentation on American football to his beautiful Indian-American girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), Ben offers a cheerful greeting of “Namaste, motherf—ers!” It’s immediately apparent that Reshma, a medical intern, thoroughly dislikes Ben, an opinion that will quickly be shared by much of the audience.
But Ben does seem to have a fondness for Kalyan, an MBA graduate who has written a book about the economy in Nepal, displaying an affection that often seems uncomfortably intimate even if he can’t resist making the occasional ethnic dig.
“The world is unfair,” he tells Kaylan at one point, adding, “Well, you know that, you’re from Nepal.”
The plot, such as it is, is set in motion when Ben learns that Sarah (Erin Darke), an old crush from elementary school, is engaged to be married to a mutual childhood friend, Ted (Michael Zegen), now a straight-laced banker. In diabolical fashion, he schemes to break up their relationship and woo Sarah himself, beginning with a dinner party that predictably goes awry.
Ben’s obsession with Sarah dates back to an adolescent dream in which he imagined her defecating on him — Freud would have had a field day with that one. He manages to persuade her to join him for a private get-together, ostensibly for the purpose of showing her a rough cut of a documentary he’s working on. But this, too, doesn’t go as planned, with the film revealing him to be a liar, and very much of the pathological variety.
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As with his previous stage efforts, Eisenberg demonstrates a real talent for crafting sharp, acerbic dialogue, and for a while this play gets by thanks to zingers expertly delivered by him and the rest of the ensemble. But The Spoils eventually winds up spinning its wheels throughout the course of its overlong running time, with the perpetually pot-smoking, condescending Ben proving so relentlessly off-putting that we wonder why the others would endure spending any time with him at all. He does indeed get a satisfying comeuppance by the play’s conclusion, although the final moments, in which Sarah reminds him of a good deed he performed as a child, add an intriguing complexity to the proceedings.
Eisenberg plays his twitchy, overbearing character to unsurprising perfection, but it’s hard not to wish he would go in a different direction in his future writing endeavors. It’s nice to see Nayyar stretching from his sitcom role, and the other performers are equally fine. But The Spoils seems far too intent on leaving a sour taste in your mouth without being particularly illuminating.
Cast: Erin Darke, Jesse Eisenberg, Kunal Nayyar, Annapurna Sriram, Michael Zegen
Director: Scott Elliott
Playwright: Jesse Eisenberg
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designers: Rob Millburn, Michael Bodeen
Projection designer: Olivia Sebesky
Presented by The New Group, in association with Lisa Matlin
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