Jesse Eisenberg’s play, The Spoils, has landed in London like a whirlwind crashing straight in off the Atlantic. This is the third stage work penned by the 32-year old writer and actor, who is best known for his high-profile roles as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and Lex Luther in Batman V Superman: The Dawn of Justice. Punctuated with shrewdly observed comedy, this is first and foremost a missive on contemporary American values, with the emphasis on American; anyone will recognise the characters and their struggles, and particularly the more general ideas about youthful complacency, but The Spoils belongs in New York. It has a Woody Allen-esque brusqueness that exudes something rather metropolitan for audiences now able to enjoy it slap bang in the centre of London, at the Trafalgar Studios in Charing Cross.
Following a successful run Off-Broadway with The New Group theatre company, Eisenberg once again stars as the intellectually narcissistic super-brat Ben, a prime example of modern white privilege who believes himself superior to all those around him whilst constantly deriding the repulsiveness of the very same inequalities from which he benefits. This internal battle makes him a complex kind of chap who, at times, struts around with such extreme arrogance as to boast a perverse sort of charisma whilst, at others, twists and contorts his limbs in on one another with pubescent shyness, sporadically bursting into fits of fractiousness that make his general presence not only obnoxious, but unnerving.
The chalk to Eisenberg’s cheese is Kunal Nayyar as the long-suffering roommate. Instantly recognisable as The Big Bang Theory’s Rajesh Koothrappali, Nayyar makes Nepalese immigrant Kalyan wholly loveable; he is affable where Ben is hostile, thoughtful where Ben is dismissive, humble where Ben is big-headed and – crucially – a diligent student of economics compared to Ben, a film studies drop-out feigning a freelance career that in reality means loafing about smoking pot in the smart apartment his parents bought him. The more Ben taunts Kalyan, the more protective we feel towards the nice guy, whose character serves to highlight Ben’s flaws.
Said flaws are heightened when he bumps into an old school friend, Ted, who is engaged to another mutual friend, Sarah. As the subject of Ben’s lifelong crush, Sarah is also the subject of a highly graphic dream that has tortured him since childhood. The reintroduction of Ted and Sarah into his life triggers a neurotic spiral where Ben seems intent on not just self-destruction but on trashing any ounce of affection that those around him may have retained.
Alfie Allen is superb as the startlingly average Ted who, much to Ben’s aggravation, is content playing by the rules; the thought of getting a conventional job, working his way up, marrying his sweetheart sends Ben berserk, and the fact that Ted’s fiancé is Sarah tips him over the edge. Sarah is played with class by Katie Brayben, who has most notably earned her stripes in the West End in Carole King musical, Beautiful. Making up the cast is Annapurna Sriram as Kalyan’s glossy girlfriend Reshma. Unfortunately for Kalyan, she is vaguely smug but makes a strong opponent for Ben, which is satisfying to watch.
Sriram and Nayyar have come over from the States with Eisenberg, along with director Scott Elliott, and so the production boasts slickness which, with such finely-tuned comedy, is highly effective. The addition of the two British cast members seems to have kept things fresh, and it’s vastly entertaining to see Allen’s goofishly smiling Ted alongside Eisenberg’s interchanging smirks and scowls.
The problem is that Eisenberg has done such a good job at making Ben the antihero – both with his writing and his execution – that you don’t feel the sympathy for him that was intended. Despite indisputably gripping performances by all five cast members, the lights went up with me waiting for something – I’ll guess I’ll never know what – that would force me to feel sorry for this spoiled, mean, self-obsessed, callous being rather than feeling like some evil genius had duped a bunch of perfectly pleasant – if dim-witted – innocents into taking his self-pitying bait.
Until that point, I was convinced that something momentous was about to happen so it didn’t end with the sort of punch that the rest of the show suggested it might. Perhaps that was the point. Or perhaps certain aspects just got lost in translation. That said, The Spoils will keep London audiences very happy while it’s here; Jesse Eisenberg is doing what Jesse Eisenberg does best, and he has an accomplished team around him.
The Spoils at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY, until Saturday 13th August 2016. Production images by Oliver Rosser. For more information and tickets visit the website.