“Sometimes the most interesting characters are difficult to like at first.”
Jesse Eisenberg’s lovelorn would-be documentarian makes this observation halfway through The Spoils, a play which seeks to push the hypothesis to its very limits. The self-penned piece poses Eisenberg as a nihilistic, quick-witted millennial New Yorker – living in a lush Manhattan apartment paid for by his father, entertaining dreams of being an auteur filmmaker without ever actually filming anything, sporting a general misanthropic loathing for his fellow man and a generous helping of narcissism to boot. While aimlessly wandering the streets of the city looking for something to film, Eisenberg’s Ben meets childhood friend Ted and is instantaneously swept up in a powerful remembered love for his fiancée Sarah. What follows is a vain attempt to win Sarah’s heart between spitting venom at his much beleaguered roommate Kaylan, his girlfriend Reshma and Ted, who misinterprets Ben’s bald cruelty for good natured humour almost to the point that I worried for his sanity.
The play is sharply funny, having been compared numerous times to the self-deprecating comedy of Woody Allen, a comparison which Eisenberg invokes in the text. But there is something more sinister going on here. Ben is a bad guy. While Allen’s onscreen persona is often crippled by neuroses, hostility seems to course through Eisenberg like a virus. Any flash of uncertainty rings insincere. His jerky, mile-a-minute performance as if the character just indulged in a few lines doesn’t help either. It is an admirably energetic performance, one that consumes Eisenberg entirely, but he succeeds almost too well in painting a portrait of Ben as a loathsome, self-interested sociopath of a man. Perhaps partly due to Scott Elliott’s steady directorial hand, Ben’s wild attempts at courting Sarah are played as unsettlingly manipulative, culminating in what I can only describe as an attempted sexual assault played for laughs. Even with this, these laughs are always clearly at rather than with. Our position on the story is clear: we can enjoy watching this wreck of a human flail and lie and cheat his way through the world, but don’t ask us to feel sorry for him.
The final scenes of the play see the sharp edge of the humour dull and curdle into sentimentality as we realise we should have seen the humanity deep down in Ben after all, an unsurprising but disappointing turn. The real question that lingers towards the end of the play is why the other characters put up with him in the first place. Their patience is bordering on saintly, persistently returning to a man who is bereft of anything to give them. In fact, the real humanity of the play appears in Kunal Nayyar’s performance as Kaylan: torn between his overbearing girlfriend and his aggressive friend, I wondered if perhaps he’s the one we should be rooting for.
Creating compelling drama from unlikeable characters is one of the great tenets of theatre. From Macbeth to Macheath, some of the greatest protagonists of the art form are not the kind of people you’d like to share a taxi with if you could help it. But The Spoils is so overzealous in its attempt to draw a complete, deliciously detestable character that it forgets to make us like him until it’s far too late.
The Spoils is on until 13th August 2016. Click here for more information.