BWW Reviews: Eisenberg's THE SPOILS Tests The Limits of Compassion
In her short story Slaves of New York, Tama Janowitz famously coined a term for those city-dwellers who willingly endure unhealthy relationships for the sake of staying in a nice apartment. Playwright/actor Jesse Eisenberg explores the limits of that willingness in his hyper-charged character drama, The Spoils.
He plays Ben, a self-described filmmaker living in a great apartment off his family's dime. Ben's got the narcissistic, nasty-tongued, pot-smoking misogynist lifestyle of a privileged, self-centered artist down pat; he just has to work on the "creating art" part of it.
He refuses to take rent money from his roommate, Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), preferring to have the upper hand that comes with his charity. Kalyan is a business student who wrote a book on economics that's well respected back home in Nepal, but Ben is quick to remind him that means nothing in America.
A major factor in what makes the evening work is that Nayyar does a great job quietly conveying sympathy Kalyan has for the obviously troubled Ben, and the insecurities he has about his own chances to do well in his new home that make him feel like his roommate is generously offering him the hard truth.
Ben has a chance meeting with his old grade-school chum Ted, now a banker and engaged to another kid from his childhood, Sarah. Michael Zegen's Ted has a boyish, wide-eyed enthusiasm about the world that contrasts with his corporate power-suit and slicked hair. Erin Darke's Sarah, who teaches teens with violent criminal pasts, has a sweet and friendly personality but proves to be well-prepared to protect herself when necessary.
Ben sees Sarah as The Spoils, so to speak. He had a schoolboy crush on her and she was the star of a sexually graphic fetish dream he once had, so he arranges a dinner party to begin his plot to steal her away. As his attempt progresses we see how far his anti-social behavior can extend.
Also involved is Kalyan's girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), a doctor who hesitates to fully commit; probably because she's repulsed by Kalyan's compassion for Ben and his willingness to put up with his abusive behavior. Before we meet Ben there's a brief scene when Reshma tells Kalyan the he's the kindest, nicest guy and that she doesn't deserve him. As the play progresses you may wonder if she was trying to let him down easy.
While Eisenberg's idiosyncratic portrayal is the evening's showcased performance, director Scott Elliot's terrific ensemble does a great job of bringing out the theme of the limits of compassion. It's an intriguing, well-acted play with some startling moments.