June 15 2016
Film star’s UK debut play has both knock-out and knock about stuff in it…
*SEMI-SPOILER NEAR END*
FRIENDSHIP is a peculiar beast at the best of times and it feels like Hollywood star Jesse Eisenberg wants you to examine yours minutely from seeing his first* West End play, “The Spoils”.
Starring in the central role as ‘Ben’, alongside his best friend – ‘Kalyan’ from Nepal, and essayed well by “The Big Bang Theory” TV comedy star, Kunal Nayyar, this is a very smart, fast Manhattan satire on friendship and many things that afflict the single under 40s living in big capital cities.
Ben is really insufferable, but Kalyan, an economics student and aspiring banker, really likes him and not just because he is the middle of New York and living rent free. Eisenberg handles the Nepali angle well and makes sure it isn’t purely a superficial device.
Ben can be highly entertaining, affectionate and supportive when it suits him.
But everything really changes with the re-emergence of Ben’s schoolboy crush – Sarah (Katie Brayben); Ben bumps into his primary school chum, Ted (Alfie Allen), who mentions that he is now engaged to Sarah and they are to be wed.
Suddenly, Ben is consumed with regret and longing and this man child of a character almost literally loses it, mentally.
It’s all a bit over the top, but Eisenberg may not be looking for realism – there probably are men like Ben, but they would almost definitely be in therapy and not have the same social bravado or sublimated arrogance.
It’s this, that leads Ben to invite Ted over for a drink – to basically humiliate him.
Ben is also Jewish (as is Eisenberg himself, culturally) and it’s almost like Eisenberg sets up two very common stereotypes to go into a ring and cudgel it out with each other – over a girl.
Both are moneyed – their fathers bought them their central New York apartments but Ted is a banker, while Ben is a filmmaker (recently chucked out of film school but for reasons unspecified).
We don’t see Sarah till much later – actually when she and Ted come around to dinner.
Also in this mix is Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), Kalyan’s girlfriend. She’s smart, a trainee doctor, and doesn’t pretend to like Ben but tolerates him because Kalyan is very devoted to him.
Ben’s own relationship to Reshma is a little underwritten and somewhere near the end, the insinuation becomes more obvious – though it’s not as clear it might be – perhaps Eisenberg leaves sexual jealousy and rivalry out of this particular equation…
No such omission with Sarah or by extension, Ted.
He still has very strong feelings for Sarah and confides in Kalyan that he had a very strange sexual dream about her when he was eight and that she was something of an ‘exhibitionist’ (when they were little).
If you, or people you know, are easily offended by quasi-sexual subjects in public, probably best to avoid recommending this to your folks or going with them…(haha).
‘Exhibitionist’ might be a bit of a strong term, as Ben only refers to the one incident (again when they were both young) but the dream plays a significant part in his behaviour towards Sarah.
You can kind of see where this is all going – yes, it’s good fun.
Eisenberg does have a good ear for dialogue, wit and Manhattan-style repartee (or what you imagine it to be like from intelligent, well-read folks).
It ends a bit limply and a bit oddly (if you ask me), with something of an undeserved redemption for Ben.
Sarah is way too nice, and while Kalyan and Reshma are better written and more real in their response to Ben’s final deluded antics – something still rankles.
It shouldn’t put you off, if you like this sort of play with cute dialogue and relate easily to late 20s, even late 30s folks, still forging a career and identity and a little challenged by contemporary social life, even if they pretend not to be – you will like this.
It’s certainly entertaining and sharply observed, and makes for great dinner party conversation (if that is, indeed, your bag).
ACV rating: *** ¾ (out of five)
All pictures: Oliver Rosser
*Debut London play, his third in all.
‘The Spoils’ by Jesse Eisenberg, Trafalgar Studios, Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY 7.30pm, Saturday & Thursday Matinee 2.30pm, until August 13.
Box Office: 0844 871 7632
Produced The New Group (director: Scott Elliot) with Lisa Matlin with Ambassador Theatre Group from May 27 2016…
‘The Spoils’by Jesse Eisenberg was originally produced by the New Group in association with Lisa Matlin at the Pershing Square Signature Center, New York City on June 2 2015 with Jesse Eisenberg (Ben); Kunal Nayyar (Kalyan) and Annapurna Sriram (Reshma) and Michael Zegen (Ted) and Erin Drake (Sarah). Its run ended June 28 2015