Theater Review: Is There a Victor in Jesse Eisenberg’s The Spoils?

Photo: Monique Carboni

His first line is “Namaste, motherfuckers,” and the fact that he says it as a kind of greeting to his Nepalese roommate and the roommate’s Indian-American girlfriend does not make him seem any less insensitive. In fact, insensitivity is the only brilliance of Ben, at least as played by the terrifying Jesse Eisenberg in his new play, The Spoils: He has raised smartass hipster-speak to the level of a diagnosable disease. Call it ulcerative sarcasm. Ben can hardly utter a word that isn’t insincere or hostile or, on the other hand, narcissistic and maudlin — and he utters about a million words a minute whenever he’s not stoned. Eventually, the nastiness turns in on itself, but until then he’s just another entitled twentysomething filmmaker manqué living off his rich father and thinking that makes him a misunderstood genius. 

He’s not; his filmmaking cred is as phony as his friendship with Kalyan, the non-swearing, dream-interpreting, too-good-to-be-true roommate he eventually betrays. (Kalyan’s in business school at NYU.) But the play’s conceit depends on such deceptions and mismatches; it’s as if Eisenberg set out to see what would happen if you took a basically cheerful sitcom, like Friends, and dropped a raving sociopath into the middle of it. What happens isn’t very nice or, alas, very good. For one thing, in order to make the setup work in a straight-on realist dramedy, a lot of logic must be quickly abandoned. You might accept that Ben lives in a glassy, high-floor two-bedroom New York apartment with a terrace and a Jasper Johns because his father bought it for him, and you might believe (just barely) that Kalyan would put up with his pretensions and passive-aggression (“I’m a dick so you look awesome by comparison”) because he’s poor and gets to live there rent-free. But why, as the plot takes shape, do none of the other characters immediately bolt from the creepy weirdo? First there’s Kalyan’s type-A, no-bullshit girlfriend, Reshma, who to her credit does hate Ben, but hangs around anyway. Then there’s Ted, an old friend whom Ben re-encounters on the street; misunderstanding Ben’s barrage of obvious insults as humor, he responds with bromantic admiration. (“You should totally do stand-up.”) Finally, there’s Ted’s fiancée, Sarah, who refuses to be alienated even when Ben expresses his inappropriate love for her by sharing the single most disgusting story I’ve ever heard from a stage.

I realize that line will be an enticement for some, and perhaps even get used in an ad. (The New Group, which has produced The Spoils, has a special fondness for excretory narratives.) But I’m actually worried for Eisenberg, who is a little too good at this sort of material; after all, he wrote it for himself. The skeevy giggles, the Tourettic yips, the chest taps as if to see if his heart is still there: No one does them better. But if he has shaped the first act to provide an opportunity for displaying this catalogue of expressive behaviors, what is he trying to do in the second act, which reveals Ben’s supposedly profound fantasies to be merely sick, and delivers several dramatically necessary but overdone comeuppances? The result is like watching a YouTube loop of some hapless jerk jumping into a frozen pool, over and over. Eventually you begin to wonder if the play was expressly designed to produce this series of extreme mortifications. Nor are we spared the uncomfortable hint of authorial self-flagellation when we read in a program insert that the character of Kalyan is based on a Nepalese friend of Eisenberg’s named … Kalyan. Is this a play or some kind of autoerotic mea culpa?

Perhaps that’s irrelevant. But even looked at as an anonymous text, The Spoils disappoints. It’s not that people like Ben don’t exist; at one time or other, many of us get involved as roommates or friends-of-friends with a vicious underminer who we later realize is mentally ill. But mental illness is not in itself a very interesting theatrical condition; it’s too hermetic. It becomes compelling only when it is met with a worthy and countervailing external force, so the audience can experience and share in a real-world conflict. Mary Tyrone’s madness, or for that matter Lady Macbeth’s, require responsive witnesses — antagonists — in order to become drama. There are no meaningful antagonists to Ben’s madness. Though the other cast members are all excellent they are mostly neutralized until the end: Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar, from The Big Bang Theory) is forced by plot exigencies to indulge him; Reshma (Annapurna Sriram) to ignore him; and Ted (Michael Zegen, hilarious) to not even notice what’s going on. Only Sarah (Erin Darke) has the combination of goodness and guts to investigate Ben’s crazy, and so her scenes are the only ones that produce in the audience any legible emotion beyond embarrassment. 

Still, The Spoils is not by any means a total loss, and it represents a substantial if intermittent improvement in Eisenberg’s writing since The Revisionist in 2013, in which he played (opposite Vanessa Redgrave, of all people) another unbearable jerk. The new play, under Scott Elliott’s smooth direction, sometimes even manages sustained scenes of believable light comedy, which is no mean achievement. (Usually these are scenes in which Ben is in one of his rare good moods or less rare stupors.) And the verbal pacing, when it finds a groove, is weirdly enticing:

BEN: I’m crossing Third Avenue and I run into this kid I went to elementary school with, Ted. He said he’s getting married. What a fucking douche bag, right?
KALYAN: I don’t know, is he? All I know is that he’s named Ted and that he’s getting married.
BEN: He says to me, “Can you believe I’m actually getting married. Can you believe I’m finally settling down?” So I said, “Yes I can, you’re a boring Jewy douche bag from New Jersey who never had a girlfriend. Of course I can believe you’re settling down, what the fuck else are you gonna do, mow someone’s lawn?”
KALYAN: I hope you didn’t actually say that.
BEN: No, I said “congratulations.” But I was thinking that pretty loud and clear. 

At this point, though, Eisenberg hasn’t found a way to make even his best shtick very resonant. The title suggests that he thought he might do so by generalization, as if the spoiled Ben might represent a stratum of idlers wasting the opportunities of New York, “where all the kids are rich and no one can figure out how.” Or perhaps he means to show through Ben how the Big Apple has been spoiled by its rotten apples. In any case, making a larger dramatic point on the back of this nut job is an insult to drama — and to nut jobs. It’s not their fault, even if it is their aim, that others overindulge them.

The Spoils is at the Signature Center through June 28.