You can see why Jesse Eisenberg attracts comparisons with Woody Allen: both excel in playing (and writing) self-obsessed men whose acerbic wit fails to mask their social ineptitude. Eisenberg’s third play as writer-actor – the first to transfer to London – feels like the apotheosis of this: his character Ben is like a young Allen with the genial veneer sanded away to reveal the grotesquely neurotic creature lurking beneath.
Ben is a narcissistic trustafarian living in a Manhattan penthouse bought by his father. He’s ostensibly a filmmaker but spends his days smoking weed and emotionally abusing his Nepalese flatmate, who he allows to live rent-free for reasons that are not even slightly altruistic. A deep-seated self-loathing causes him to goad his friends – and the audience – into disliking him despite his obvious vulnerability.
Things unravel when Ben is reintroduced to a now-engaged pair of his childhood friends, one of whom he’s been hopelessly in love with since a dream in which she defecated onto his face.
The structure isn’t subtle: Eisenberg builds a familiar, sitcom environment and then smashes it up with a giant scatological hammer. Ben’s recollection of his disturbing dream brings to mind The Aristocrats, the mythical improvised joke of exceeding depravity shared between stand-up comedians.
The telling and retelling of this story, in increasingly lurid detail, is the high-point of the evening, and in these moments The Spoils crackles with a dark energy. Eisenberg has a prodigious talent for writing and delivering comic dialogue; in a play bursting with gags, few fall flat.
The problem is, it’s all about Ben, the dark heart of the piece and sole counterbalance to his relentlessly upbeat peers. As the end draws near, Eisenberg seems unsure what to do with the monster he’s created, eventually employing a screeching U-turn to wrap things up. It also lacks a clear message, beyond white privilege being the perfect breeding-ground for obnoxious jerks.
The Spoils is naïve and a little aimless, but Eisenberg’s compelling, twitchy performance is enough to paper over most of the dramatic shortcomings. Unlike some of his Hollywood peers (Matthew Perry, Zach Braff, Lindsay Lohan), he walks away from his first brush with West End theatre with his reputation largely intact.