By Jesse Eisenberg; Directed by Scott Elliott
Produced by The New Group
Off Broadway, New Show
Runs through 6.28.15
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 6.2.15
Jesse Eisenberg and Kunal Nayyar in The Spoils.
BOTTOM LINE: Jesse Eisenberg and Scott Elliott bring star power to a funny, well-acted production, but the story doesn’t entirely add up.
We meet Ben (Jesse Eisenberg) as he comes home early and interrupts his roommate’s date, entering with a greeting of “Namaste, Motherfuckers.” His roommate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), is a Nepalese immigrant recently arrived in New York to attend business school at NYU and pursue a job on Wall Street. Ben, who is living in the spacious apartment his father purchased for him, has been kicked out of NYU’s graduate school and spends his days talking about what he wouldn’t shoot as an aspiring filmmaker, and smoking weed.
While Ben seems to fetishize Kalyan’s exoticness and the fact that he’s not American, he also sings Kalyan’s praises, possibly with some homoerotic undertones (Ben sits in Kalyan’s lap at one point and later holds his hand). He’s also jealous of any intrusion into his relationship and is rude and cutting to Kalyan’s girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), a medical student. Kalyan is Ben’s only friend, something Ben acknowledges and although they’ve only lived together for five months, Kalyan is very protective of Ben and sensitive to his emotional fragility. As roommates go, Kalyan gives Mother Theresa a run for her money in the saintly department as he navigates a friendship with someone who everyone else finds utterly unlikable. As played by Nayyar, the kind and compassionate Kalyan serves as a counterpoint to Ben’s obnoxious narcissist. Eisenberg’s ear for dialogue is much in evidence in the scenes between the two as they banter with sarcasm and affection.
Ben is at home in his state of arrested development until he runs into a classmate from high school. Ted (Michael Zegen) is essentially a bro who works on Wall Street and is engaged to Sarah (Erin Darke), Ben’s childhood crush who is now a schoolteacher working with at risk kids. Compelled by vivid memories of an intimate, scatological childhood dream he had of Sarah and of seeing her semi-naked as children, he decides to try to break up the couple.
The quintet come together when Ben invites Sarah and Ted over for dinner, while Kalyan, motivated by a need for a job, is eager to become friends with Ted who can get him get an interview at his firm. Neither of their plans go as they’d hoped.
Although Eisenberg is skilled with dialogue, he’s not as deft with his portrayals of women. During the dinner scene Reshma comes off as inexplicably bitchy, angry at Kalyan for not picking up a bottle of wine. Both the anger and the level of intimacy between a couple who haven’t been together that long doesn’t ring true. As the tough school teacher who calls Ben on his lies, Sarah is better written but she seems mismatched with Ted, who isn’t on her level intellectually.
Director Scott Elliott keeps the very talky play moving along at a brisk pace with the characters playing off each other without letting Eisenberg overpower any of them. Derek McLane creates a very envy-inducing New York apartment with outdoor space, lots of windows and room enough for a full-sized kitchen table and a complete living room. The nicely appointed furnishings are courtesy of Ethan Allen.
As an actor, Eisenberg is clearly comfortable playing the unmitigated jerk and is compelling while being loathsome. Nayyar leaves the sitcom universe of "The Big Bang Theory" behind and brings a much-needed sweetness to the curdled goings on about him. Darke, Sriram and Zegen are engaging and give as good as they get opposite Eisenberg.
The main problem though is that all of the action revolves around Ben, who remains a cipher. The people in his life react to him as if he’s a realistic person but he’s more of a type -- a man-child -- than a fully realized character who doesn’t earn the ending he’s given. Audiences wanting motivation for his character’s behavior will likely be frustrated. I would have liked some backstory, but it’s a testament to Eisenberg’s writing and the strength of the talented ensemble that the show still mostly works.
(The Spoils is at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42md Street, through June 28, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2. Additional Wednesday matinees are 6/10 and 6/24 at 2. Additional Sunday evening performances are 6/7 and 6/21 at 7:30. Tickets are $27 to $97 and available by visiting thenewgroup.org or by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200).