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Jesse Eisenberg’s The Spoils – review round-up

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It would be inappropriate to describe Hollywood all-rounder Jesse Eisenberg simply as an actor-turned-playwright. Alongside his critically and commercially successful acting career, he has contributed to the New Yorker and McSweeney’s literary journal, performed in the not-for-profit Theater of War ensemble, which brings readings of Greek classics to the military and civilian audiences living within active war zones, and spoken out on issues of animals rights and domestic violence, fostering pets and match-funding donations to women’s shelters.

No mere dilettante however, this time last year Eisenberg’s play The Spoils – his third as playwright – was Ben Brantley’s ‘Critic’s Pick’ in the New York Times when it opened Off-Broadway. That show now transfers to Trafalgar Studios for a short summer run in London, with Eisenberg reprising his role as its protagonist, Ben.

Living in a flat paid for by dad while he bums around New York engineering situations for ‘documentary’ films, Ben is crippled by his privilege, vile to his friends, and desperate to win the heart of his teenage infatuation Sarah, if only so his old schoolfriend Ted can’t have her. Eisenberg is joined onstage by Kunal Nayyar, Alfie Allen, Katie Brayben, and Annapurna Sriram. Scott Elliott directs.

Megan Vaughan rounds up the reviews.

The Spoils – The Jesse Show

Jesse Eisenberg i The Spoils. Photo: Oliver Rosser
Jesse Eisenberg in The Spoils. Photo: Oliver Rosser

There is no doubt that this is a star vehicle, and that Eisenberg is indeed a star. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★) says he is “riveting – a psychologically intense and physically precise study in malign charisma and twitchy narcissism”, while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) admires a performance that is “by turns tactile and needy, aloof and attention-seeking, flipping between cynical jest and highly-strung earnest.”

Even Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, 3 stars), in an otherwise muted review, calls him “completely compelling … with genuine, honest-to-god stagecraft” and finishes by declaring “I would love to see his Mercutio, his Hamlet, his Iago…”

Some, however, also question the point of creating a work that focuses so completely on such an unpleasant character. Hitchings says “it’s a risk to focus for over two and a half hours on someone who, despite moments of vulnerability, is so resolutely loathsome”, and Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) agrees: “I found something grating about a play that begs our sympathy for a hero who is, by any objective standards, a self-absorbed dickhead.”

Marianka Swain (Arts Desk) goes even further, suggesting a psychological link between the character of Ben, and his creator: “Perhaps the more intriguing question – and one Eisenberg’s therapist has surely raised – is why the actor and writer not only plays narcissistic assholes in Hollywood movies like The Social Network, but also insists on creating them for himself.”

The Spoils – too mawkish?

The latest in a string of American plays to arrive in London, several of the critics comment on a particular structure and tone that seems to define that theatrical culture. Lukowski observes that the play “feels less like a piece of theatre than an extended sitcom”, while Matt Trueman (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) wonders how a British audience will take to this “fundamentally American” style: “There’s not a trace of metaphor here, and in straining for a credible real-time psychology, The Spoils frequently goes slack as it drags on – a problem exacerbated with humour that gets lost in translation.”

Swain is similarly frustrated by the fact that the “endless self-analysis makes for a flat theatre experience, dictating a response rather than trusting the audience to reach their own conclusions”, which isn’t unconnected to others’ accusations of mawkishness. Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★) doesn’t mince his words: “All that happens here is that folk get together, talk and irk each other. Oh, but right at the end Ben is given a redeeming virtue back in his past, as if this makes him a rounded, complex character…”

Andy Moseley (Reviews Hub, ★★★) is equally unimpressed that Ben achieves “redemption that he doesn’t really deserve”, and Billington finds it problematic too: “my complaint about this play is that Eisenberg, while making clear that Ben is bullying, sexist and implicitly racist, wants us to feel sorry for him. It is also striking that Ben has many of the best lines, easily trumps everyone when it comes to playing a convoluted word game and, at the end, is shown to have a buried, residual goodness. Some may see that as a clever narrative switch; to me, it reeks of sentimentality.”

The Spoils – below the surface

The Spoils - Trafalgar Studios - L - R Jesse Eisenberg (Ben) Annapurna Sriram (Reshma) Kunal Nayyar (Kalyan) Katie Brayben (Sarah) - Photo by Oliver Rosser - (10)While The Spoils may be accused of being, in Matt Trueman’s words, “the sort of play that talks its argument out”, there are hints of issues beyond the central character’s privilege and selfishness. Lukowski finds “some fascinating seeds in it, hints of a more profound play about the malaise that sets in to immigrant generations as they assimilate and lose their forefathers’ drive” while Hitchings and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) both see signs of something more troubling within Ben. For Hitchings, it’s “symptoms of mental illness”, while Taylor detects “a desolating whiff of the extreme loneliness”.

Not everyone is looking for something meaty though. Paul Ewing (Londonist, ★★★★) is happy that things are kept light: “You may be forgiven for thinking that a play about a hard working immigrant student and his doctor girlfriend might also lead to a comment about immigration. But Eisenberg and director Scott Elliott keep the focus on things that are bright and breezy. This is the world of a casual friends and chance encounters and mild humour. Not biting commentary on the state of the world.”

The Spoils – so it is any good?

Hmmm. A pretty equal split between three and four-star reviews implies that it’s fine, competent, quite good. There is some vitriol, but little sign of joy, beyond praise for Eisenberg’s performance, and West End Wilma’s excitement at how Alfie Allen “looks like he has been plucked from Avenue Q”.

The most genuine enthusiasm seems to come from Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★), for whom “it is refreshing to see a celebrity vehicle here that actually earns its place on the London stage”, plus one single, head-spinning rave from Jim Compton-Hall (The Upcoming, ★★★★) who declares the show to be “a work of utter genius” with “a whole new level of intelligence in the writing, … perhaps the funniest thing ever to have happened on stage”.

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