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Review: 'The Spoils'

by Photo of Paul Hansen

Jesse Eisenberg writes and stars in ‘The Spoils’.

Review: 'The Spoils'

Photo by Monique Carboni

The term "bad boy" gets a new definition in Jesse Eisenberg's new play The Spoils currently playing off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The play ostensibly centers around a particularly obnoxious millennial, Ben, played by Eisenberg. However, the drama is open to subtle interpretation in which Ben's outrageous behavior is in part an expression of angst at an increasingly demanding, economically polarized world.

The Spoils opens in a very comfortable Manhattan apartment where Kalyan (a Nepalese graduate student played by Kunal Nayyar) and his girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram) are flirting. The playful dialogue, capturing something of the idyllic innocence of young lovers, lasts for a few minutes until Ben (Kalyan's roommate and owner of the apartment) walks in with all the subtlety and elegance of a blast of arctic air.

What follows is a slightly over two hour whirlwind of Ben's self-centered, cynical, confrontational, sarcastic, and abrasive personality punctuated at times by quite crude verbal outbursts which needless to say test the patience of all those he encounters. The already significant tension is heightened when Ben discovers that Sarah, a woman that he has had a crush on since childhood, is engaged to another man (Michael Zegen).

A viewer is left with the obvious question: What is the cause of Ben's maniacally offensive behavior?

The character and development of Ben reminded me somewhat of the Matt Damon role in Good Will Hunting, although Ben's behavior is arguable more extreme. And just as the therapist (of course played by the late, great Robin Williams) tried to analyze what inner pain the obnoxious conduct of Will Hunting was concealing, there are a number of clues in The Spoils which possibly illuminate the sources of Ben's inner torment.

Ben is a mid-to-late 20-something filmmaker of questionable credentials who is apparently still being supported by his father. He lives in a very comfortable apartment (again provided by his father), doesn't appear to be working (except to pursue his occasional "filmmaking") and seems to have a lot of free time on his hands.

As with any New Yorker, he is surrounded by struggling (or in some cases falling through the cracks) humanity, including his roommate, a graduate student from the Third World who until a short while ago was delivering pizzas for a living. One can sense that Ben's very privileged perch has produced a certain self-loathing which ironically manifests itself in strident and petulant interactions with others.

Despite his cynical, sarcastic and obnoxious veneer, there are signs here and there that Ben has a more compassionate side that is attempting to surface. He makes a short film about a homeless man who eats food from garbage that a woman walking her dog will not allow her pet to eat. At one point, he proposes a toast to that part of humanity that has to work, hoping that they will find something fulfilling and creative to do that will make them want to get up in the morning. And for the most part, Ben allows his Nepalese roommate to live in the apartment for free.

And yet, these random acts of compassion are not enough to break Ben's sense of self-contempt. Ben's destructive behavior (exacerbated by Sarah's impending marriage) seems to escalate until in a cathartic moment at the end of the play (again reminiscent of Good Will Hunting) he is reminded of a compassionate moment from his youth. This seems to re-establish some sense of self-worth that may set him on his way to a more balanced personality.

It is to Eisenberg's credit that the clues to Ben's strident personality are on the whole quite subtle and the above is only one interpretation of his character. A casual or inattentive viewer of The Spoils might conclude that Ben is merely a spoiled brat. But for those who want to find the motivation for the obnoxiousness there are plenty of clues to work with. And those clues address some interesting, important social issues.

More tellingly, in an interesting sort of way the play is a direct dramatization of the tension of the 1% (Ben) and the struggling everyone else (manifested by Ben's Nepalese roommate) literally living under the same roof. At rock bottom, a lot of Ben's obnoxious behavior could be interpreted as a toxic reaction to what may be perceived as an increasingly competitive if not devouring world in which room for compassion may be diminishing.

Despite obliquely dealing with some serious social issues, much of the play has a comedic ambiance and the dialogue is fast paced and zippy. The jokes fall with a certain rhythmic consistency that you might find in a Neil Simon comedy and for the most part the humor is organic to the text. Some of Ben's dialogue is quite crude, giving some of the profanity that spouts from Mozart's mouth in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus a run for its money.

Actors Nayyar, Sriram, Zegen and Erin Darke as Sarah have a believable chemistry and camaraderie as twenty-somethings trying to establish themselves in the Big City. The apartment set by Derek McLane is quite pleasing to look at and director Scott Elliot has provided lively direction. Eisenberg clearly has talent as a playwright, and it will be interesting to see what his next efforts are.

The Spoils is playing through June 28 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street.

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