The funny thing is, a few days earlier I had seen Eisenberg in a good movie, The End of the Tour, where he plays a journalist road-tripping with Jason Segel, as author David Foster Wallace. It’s a good movie, in part, because the 31-year-old Eisenberg, who often plays jerks, is playing a level-headed adult, envious and prying, perhaps, but professional. Looking at his resume, I should amend my comment to say that he
often seems to play jerks, mainly because he tends to pile on the neurotic tics and quirks that make otherwise grounded characters irritating. In the film, he holds back, and observes. Rather than wanting to be watched, he’s watchful, and sharing the spotlight suits him, and us.
Ben, his character in The Spoils, cedes the stage for a chunk of the first act. Ben, who lives in a New York apartment that his father bought for him and has no visible means of support other than a tenuous “career” as a documentarian, hangs back in the presence of his more aspirational roommate, Kalyan, played by Big Bang Theory co-star Kunal Nayyar. Based on one of Eisenberg’s own friends, Kalyan is a Nepalese writer hoping for broader horizons in America. Ben joshes with Kalyan, in a friendly if needy way, and Eisenberg (who has written two other Off Broadway plays) has a good ear for cross-cultural relationships. Kalyan’s girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), a doctor, resents Ben’s meddling in their relationship, and calls him on his passive-aggressive behavior–a little too harshly, at least in the first act, when he hasn’t done all that much to provoke anyone. (There’s that theatrical standby, the Crappy Dinner Party, to get through, but even that’s not as bad as the one in, say, Disgraced.) Confessing a strange sexual fetish regarding Sarah (Erin Darke), who’s engaged to another of his very patient friends, Ted (Michael Zegen, Boardwalk Empire‘s Bugsy Siegel), signals abuse to come.
At the top of Act Two, Ben, Kalyan’s “humor consultant,” tells a joke that’s actually funny, and we get an inkling of why anyone might want to spend time with him. That inkling’s all we get, however. Over the course of several grueling scenes, Ben, in an orgy of hateful self-loathing, tears into each of his friends, revealing a racist and misogynistic (and poopy) streak that reverses the few good vibes the show generated earlier. Worse, as white privilege gracelessly rears its ugly head, we have closing scenes as those same characters, who we’re now obliged to regard as clueless dolts for sticking it out, try to understand his pain, and give us a reason to besides. It doesn’t work, and while Ben does get slapped around by the one sensible person onstage, it’s not enough. You want to grind him into dust–something that Eisenberg, as an actor and playwright with three shows under his belt, should find limiting by now.
Besides reviewers who should know better, enabling this rut are the usual irreproachable veterans of The New Group, including director Scott Elliott and set designer Derek McLane, plus sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, the ones to blame for cranking an “ironic” “Just The Way You Are” through the audio system. The New Group often succeeds in squeezing higher-grade acid from the sour plays they put on. Not this time. You could feel the relief as the thing, at least twenty minutes too long, finally concluded.
To the victor, The Spoils? Best to steer clear unless you really want Jesse Eisenberg to mess with your head–and maybe you do, so, have it. This is a good production of a play that drove me bonkers. Oh, I meant what I said about punching him in the mouth, perhaps in an arena. Is Mark Zuckerberg still mad at him? Maybe he’ll stake me. Bring it, Jesse. Bring. It.