BY DAVID KENNERLEY | Film actor Jesse Eisenberg is becoming a formidable force on the New York stage. In recent seasons “The Social Network” Oscar nominee has written and starred in “Asuncion,” “The Revisionist,” and now the New Group’s “The Spoils,” at the Pershing Square Signature Center Off Broadway.
Eisenberg’s works tend to be obsessed with culture clashes, failed aspirations, smoldering deceptions, mismatched roommates, paranoid potheads, and awkward bromances. Not only is he unafraid to play erratic, unappealing characters, he seems to revel in it. In “The Spoils,” however, he goes too far with the obnoxious asshole act.
The 31-year-old dramatist plays Ben, a churlish wannabe filmmaker living in a New York apartment paid for by his father (it’s hard not to think of the recent Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s similarly-themed “This Is Our Youth” starring Michael Cera, who is often confused with Eisenberg, much to his annoyance).
One of Ben’s dirty secrets: he’s a filmmaker who’s never actually completed a film. Another is that he swipes ideas and passes them off as his own.
Ben tries to offset his failures by skewering everyone he encounters, including his sweet-natured Nepalese roommate, Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar of “Big Bang Theory” fame), an MBA student at NYU, who, unlike Ben, is trying to make something of himself. Kalyan’s pretty girlfriend, Reshma (the excellent Annapurna Sriram), despises Ben and for good reason.
When Ben learns that his grade school crush, Sarah (Erin Darke), is marrying another childhood classmate, Ted (Michael Zegen), he tries to sabotage their relationship. He considers Ted a “boring, Jewy douche bag” banker unworthy of Sarah.
Many elements in this production, helmed by Scott Elliott, are top notch. Derek McLane has crafted a finely detailed, stylish apartment, complete with a balcony and awesome view of the Manhattan skyline. The piece features neat visual touches like silly PowerPoint presentations (created by Kalyan, of course) and film footage projected on a wall above the sofa. Projections were designed by Olivia Sebesky.
Eisenberg has a keen ear for contemporary dialogue, and much it is fresh, naturalistic, and compelling.
“The Spoils” is never better than when contemplating the nature of male bonding. Ben appears to have a mancrush on Kalyan and even admits he loves him (presumably in a straight “I love you, man” kind of way), even giving his bestie a smooch on top of his head and later nestling in his arms on the sofa.
“I’m touched you guys. And hard,” Ben quips after a tender discussion between Kalyan and Ted about nice guys eventually getting the girl.
The performances are, for the most part, exceptional. Nayyar’s Kalyan doesn’t stray far from his goofy nerd “Big Bang Theory” character. Always charming, he absorbs ethnic jabs in stride, and his endearing South Asian accent and sentence structure are predictable yet welcome punch lines. Kalyan is, indeed, as Ben calls him, a “stand up guy.”
As written, Ben is despicable, and Eisenberg’s jittery, go-for-broke style magnifies his vileness so intensely that it becomes off-putting and seems out of whack with the other performers. Sure, we see Ben smoking pot but his mannerisms suggest a meth addict on a binge. There is little reason why the others (or, for that mater, the audience) would wish to spend an entire evening with him.
When Ben recounts (twice) a particularly nasty dream involving feces, we are not intrigued but repulsed. When Ben comes home early, disrupting an intimate evening, Reshma inexplicably leaves, although the couple could have simply gone to Kalyan’s bedroom.
No matter what the scenario — whether it be hanging with his roomie or hosting a dinner party — Ben implausibly wears the same oversized, grubby, off-white T-shirt (he’s a self-absorbed, socially inept slob –– we get it). Just a few glaring false notes that undercut the credibility in an otherwise engrossing drama.
THE SPOILS | The New Group | Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Jun. 28: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $77-$97 at thenewgroup.org or 212-279-4200 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission
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