Can’t wait to see Jesse Eisenberg play a stoner jerk trained in the superhuman skills of an assassin in the upcoming movie “American Ultra”? The rich jerk he plays in his self-scripted black comedy, “The Spoils,” doesn’t need superhuman skills to be super-toxic. Following a plot that’s almost a parody of a good-friends sitcom, this deeply unpleasant man-child manages to alienate his roommate and best friend, the girl he’s in love with, and anyone else who happens to walk through the door. The cast is terrific and director Scott Elliott (also the artistic director of The New Group) finds it in his heart to extend some compassion to Eisenberg’s perfect little beast.
The last time Eisenberg was on a New York stage — in “The Revisionist,” another play he wrote — he played an arrogant young American behaving with gross disrespect for a Holocaust survivor (played by Vanessa Redgrave). Ben, the insufferable character he plays here, is another one of those boyish brats you love to hate, and the writer-actor plays his unlovely creation with all the love-hate he deserves.
Ben is somewhere in his mid- to late-20s, and despite having dropped out of graduate school, he’s living comfortably in Manhattan in a modern apartment (tastefully designed by Derek McLane) subsidized by his rich but pointedly absent father. Although his life seems totally aimless, he manages to keep his self-loathing at bay with the fiction (improbably accepted by the few friends he has in the world) that he’s making a brilliant independent film.
For companionship rather than financial need, Ben has acquired a Nepalese roommate named Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar, a familiar face from “The Big Bang Theory” and thoroughly likable here) who is as sweet as Ben is sour, as emotionally generous as Ben is selfish. Kalyan has a lovely girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram, perfect in this role), originally from India but far more Americanized than the rather naive Kalyan, and quite rightly protective of him.
Give the devil his due, Ben seems genuinely fond of Kalyan. (In a dopey but still-poignant gesture, he calls Kalyan his best friend and clumsily warns Reshma not to break his heart.) But the poor guy can’t help himself — he’s just obnoxious. And to give Eisenberg his due, that’s exactly the way he plays Ben.
The performance is especially astute on a physical level. Not cutting Ben the least bit of slack, the actor has given him the self-protective (and self-loathing) posture of a rounded back and caved-in chest. Kicking it up a few notches, he’s also saddled him with facial tics and, more sympathetically, a tendency to bury his face in his hands.
Whatever made Ben the way he is (and why doesn’t the playwright give us a few solid clues?), he’s smart enough to know when he’s being deliberately cruel; indeed, he takes perverse satisfaction in it. But he honestly doesn’t seem to realize that his “good” behavior is just as appalling.
What sends Ben around the bend is finding out that Sarah Newburg (Erin Darke, knocking herself out to make this idealized character believable), the only girl he ever loved, is getting married to a nerdy banker named Ned (Michael Zegen, daring to be funny). It isn’t pretty, what Ben does to try to stop the wedding, but it does earn him an ounce of pity. And while “The Spoils” (what means this dumb title?) is more of a “Day in the Life of …” character sketch than a fully constructed drama, it leaves us wanting to find a kind way to put Ben out of his misery.