Directed by Scott Elliott
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Jesse Eisenberg’s “The Spoils,” currently running at the New Group, is the “This Is Our Youth” for the twenty-first century millennial generation and captures the angst of this generation with gripping honesty and often disturbing realism. The complicated dynamics between the protagonist Ben (Jesse Eisenberg), his Nepalese roommate Kalyan (played with a charming innocence by Kunal Nayyar), Kalyan’s girlfriend Reshma (played with a steely veneer by Annapurna Sriram), Ben’s high school mate Ted (played with the right mix of naiveté and revenge by Michael Zegen) and his fiancé Sarah (played with splendid resolute dignity by Erin Darke) enliven the iconic Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and splay the stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center with identification, projection, delusional behavior, magical thinking (to name but a few) and near ego strength meltdown. Mr. Eisenberg’s script is the best on or off Broadway at the present time and for quite some time before.
Ben lives in a New York City apartment (a splendid design by Derek McLane) purchased for him by his father. He is a (sometimes) filmmaker, having – through a “mutual falling out” – left NYU believing the University “did not know how to think of him, what little box to put him in.” Ben invites Kaylan – who have come to the United States from Nepal to start a new life – to be his roommate and a relationship brimming with classism and racism ensues despite Ben’s seeming bromance with Kaylan. In an offbeat way, Kaylan is Ben’s doppelganger. Kaylan’s quest to make sense of living as a stranger in a strange land parallels Ben’s identical quest: Ben does not quite fit in and is out of synch with his environment. Despite his mantra that “the best revenge is a life well lived” he simply cannot achieve that goal and he alienates everyone in his circle of friends.
The apartment becomes a war zone as Ben manages to alienate not only Kaylan, but Reshma, Ted, and Sarah. To detail the emotional warfare waged by Ben would require a spoiler alert. It is enough to know that Ben intends to leave no survivors in his verbal and emotional assaults – all meant to isolate himself and become the champion of self-effacement. And the actual success of his friends – new and old – and the rebuff from Sarah (after he makes advances toward her) push Ben further to the dissolution of his ego strength. The spoils of this inter and intra psychological battle spread across the stage – neatly symbolized by Ben’s burst bag of microwaved popcorn that leaves its contents like fallout from a nuclear blast. Scott Elliott’s direction throughout is exacting and supports the entire cast in delivering outstanding performances that explore the depths of the human psyche with deliberate honesty and authenticity.
In one of the plays most engaging scenes, Ben lashes out at Kalyan, “The thing that the world has been telling you to do at every turn. It’s why your f**ing girlfriend won’t commit. It’s why you can’t get a job at that place. It’s why people like me aren’t going to let you freeload forever. Everything is pointing in one direction for you but you keep walking the other way.” Ben is not really speaking to Kalyan here; rather, Ben is speaking of himself and his situation. It is not until Ben experiences this cathartic moment that he can begin to heal and Sarah further enables that healing with her touching story of eleven-year-old Ben’s rescue of Inga Lushenko, his grade school classmate from the Ukraine. None of the students would go near her because of childish rumors she “had like deadly radiation that was really contagious.” Ben proved Inga was able to be touched, to be cared for and Sarah – despite being abused by Ben – wants Ben to know that he is “not radioactive” and is capable of being embraced and restored to the community he has alienated himself from.
Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of twenty-something Ben is brilliant. The actor is always in the moment and his every move defines his character’s failure to come to terms with his inability to cope with disappointment and rejection. Watching Mr. Eisenberg navigate the vicissitudes of Ben’s experience puts the audience members in touch with their own sense of alienation and cultural ennui. One would expect to see “The Spoils” on stage beyond its current run scheduled to end on Sunday June 28, 2015.