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A CurtainUp Review
The Spoils

Hey. Are you offended by my actions this evening?— Ben
Which ones?— Kalyan
Jesse Eisenberg & Kunal Nayyar in The New Group production, The Spoils, a new play by Jesse Eisenberg (Photo: Monique Carboni)
Plays written by actors as starring vehicles for themselves are more often than not solo shows. Jesse Eisenberg's first ventures into playwriting certainly revolve around a character clearly custom-made for the quirky style probably most widely familiar from his Oscar nominated lead role in Social Network. But, while things pivot around the Eisenberg character, his scripts, which The Spoils brings to a total of three, include hefty roles for other actors as well.

In The Spoils, now having its premiere at the New Group's Pershing Square Signature Center home, even more than previously, it's not Eisenberg's Ben, but the other characters who engage our sympathies. True to the title, Ben manages to spoil everything and everyone he comes in contact with: his relationship with his roommate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), a dinner party with his childhood friends Ted (Michael Zegen) and Sarah(Erin Darke) and Kalyan's girl friend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram). Most of all, he continually spoils any chance of coming to grips with his own insecurities and fixations.

That said, Ben does ultimately break our hearts. Though raised in an upscale suburb, his is a classic case of neither parents or helping professionals saving a deeply conflicted boy from becoming the self-hating, self-destructive loser we see unraveling over the course of two hours.

A look at this actor-playwright's biography points to this play's being something of a rumination on what can happen to troubled youngsters who fail to find a way to live with their insecurities. Eisenberg, like Ben, grew up in New Jersey, but found acting (starting at age 10) as a way to deal with his own sense of not fitting in.

While acting in plays worked well for Ben's creator, not so for Ben the character. With him acting took the form of outrageous acting up — which he still does with obnoxious behavior and constant lying, to himself as well as others.

With Big Bang Theory regular Kunal Nayyar playing the graduate MBA student from Nepal sharing Ben's Manhattan apartment, it's understandable why The Spoils is billed as a comedy. The opening scene between Kalyan and his girl friend Reshma does indeed begin on a humorous note. Kalyan has prepared a power point presentation about football (nice work by projectionist Olivia Sebesky). This is his way of declaring his love for Reshma who's been watching the game with him strictly because he's a fan. It's all fun and sitcom-y. But the comedy turns dark as soon as Eisenberg's Ben arrives on scene.

Ben's hyper physicality and non-stop talking brings an unsettling undercurrent into the handsome Manhattan apartment designed by Derek McLane. No apologizing for barging in on his friend's date after promising that he'd be out all evening. instead he reminds him that this is his home (albeit, bought by and maintained by his father). His hostile, racially inflected attitude towards the American-raised Reshma intensifies the uncomfortably charged undercurrent.

It doesn't take long to realize that Kalyan is probably Ben's only friend, a desperately necessary listener and supporter of his go-nowhere film making ambitions. Ben's slacker life style and delusions evoke memories of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth which also had its premiere under the auspices of the New Group and was only recently revived on Broadway.

After Reshma leaves, we learn that Ben's latest need for a sympathetic listening ear was triggered by running into his long-ago grade school friend. It seems Ted, to whom Ben feels vastly superior, not only has a successful financial career but is engaged to Sarah. That's the girl in a calling-Dr.Freud dream that still haunts him.

Kalyan, who's aware that Ben's movie-making career is more talk than fact, is more impressed with Ted's career. Besides, he's as ambitious as he is kind and so suggests inviting Ted over for drinks. Ben agrees to invite Ted but, true to his automatic mean-spiritedness, he praises Kalyan but also almost sabotages Ted's offer to get him an interview at his firm. Though Kalyan doesn't confront Ben about this, neither does he let him completely off the hook. When Ben asks him whether he was offended with his actions his response of "Which one?" indicates that even he might might have a breaking point. Thanks to Mr. Nayyar, Kalyan is a charming and richly nuanced presence, and Annapurna Sriram's Reshma is also quite fine .

The three men's get-together is benign in light of the dinner party that follows. Partaking of the Nepalese menu at that we have the four support players and an increasingly drunk and out of bounds Ben spoiling the otherwise genial mood.

Despite the party's abrupt ending, Ben does get a chance to see his dream girl Sarah again. Erin Darke completes the excellent ensemble. She is now a math teacher to students who've run afoul of the justice system with drug dealing (as could easily have happened to Ben if he was poor as well as disturbed). Sarah is intrigued enough by Ben's talk of a film he has yet to make to accept an invitation to see him edit it. Of course, this is Ben's chance to tell her about the torch he's carried for her all these years, as well as to make her privvy to his distasteful long ago dream.

The scene with Sarah further exacerbates Ben 's out of control rudeness, crudeness and aggressiveness. Unsurprisingly, Kalyan's loyalty does reach that breaking point. And Sarah, though hardly turned on by Ben's declaration of love, taps into her professional understanding of his deep-seated neurosis to offers him a healthier memory than the dream about her he's nurtured.

All this makes for an ambiguous ending. It's an ending that will divide the audience between those moved to feel sorry for Ben's pain, and those unable to sympathize with him; those who see him as a hopeless basket case and those who feel he might still be helped.

The audience is less likely to differ in their opinion of the way each actor captures the personalities Eisenberg has written for them. Most of the laughs are likely to be as a nervous response to some of the more outrageous dialogue. Nor are complaints likely about the way Scott Elliott and his design team have delivered a well paced, visually on the mark production.

Following are links to our reviews of Jesse Eisenberg's first two plays (both presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Company): Asuncion and Revisionist

The Spoils by and featuring Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Ben), Kunal Nayyar (Kalyan), Erin Darke (Sarah), Annapurna Sriram (Reshma) and Michael Zegen (Ted)
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Susan Hilferty
Sound:Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Lights: Peter Kaczorowski
Projections: Olivia Sebesky
Fight Direction: Uncle Dave's Fight House
Stage Manager:Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 2:20, including intermission
The New Group at Pershing Square Theater Center
From 5/05/15; opening 6/02/15; closing 6/28/15.
Tuesday - Friday at 7:30PM, Saturday 2 & 8PM, Sunday at 2PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/29 press preview
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