Review: The Spoils


You would think that a play that has as its leading character a wealthy, obnoxious Jew, and whose most satisfying moment, from the audience's point of view, comes when he is humiliated, punched and then showered with cash as he lies pathetically on the floor, might raise alarm bells. And actually, a couple of bells did toll in the mind of this, no doubt overly sensitised to Jewish tropes and stereotypes –- and Shylock-like hate figures in partcular - reviewer.

But this is Jesse Eisenberg's play which, following Bad Jews, is the latest American Jewish-authored work to make no concession to the (largely European) Jewish fear of how Jews are depicted.

That fear is a state of mind that at best informs, and at worst distorts, a Jew's response to every public Jewish reference. It's an insanity. And while watching Eisenberg's portrayal of Ben, a New York Jewish rich kid and wannabe filmmaker who lives in the swish apartment bought for him by his parents, the thought occurred of how lovely it must be to be the kind of Jew who doesn't give a fig about how Jews are depicted - a Jew such as Eisenberg, or so it would seem. As I imagined being liberated of all that anxiety, I was reminded of what an aging George Melly once said about losing his sex drive. "It's like being unchained from a madman."

Not that Eisenberg's Ben isn't saddled with his own unenviable psychosis. He's the archetypal walking, talking New York, neurotic Jew – the complete opposite of his mild-mannered flatmate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar, best known from The Big Bang Theory), a Nepalese immigrant with ambitions to work on Wall Street.

Not for nothing has Eisenberg, whose less neurotic films roles include Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and Lex Luther in Batman v Superman, been touted as Woody Allen's heir-apparent. (He also stars in Allen's latest). But what makes his socially incompetent Ben so compelling is that he is such fun to be with and so hard to like. He talks at machine gun speed and is armed with a seemingly endless supply of deadly one-liners. If he is the rudest person in the room, he is also the most vulnerable.

The plot pivots on a reunion with Sarah (Katie Brayden), an old school friend about whom Ben confesses to Kalyan that he once had a dream – the kind of dream no well-adjusted male would ever admit to having. But then Ben is not well adjusted. He was only eight when he had the fantasy (way too taboo to even hint at here) but the obsession for Sarah since that moment has inhibited his ability to form relationships. And now she and her fiancé Ted, also a former school mate who Ben recently bumped into, are coming over. Ben's intention is to win her heart. The question being, not will he succeed, but how much damage will he inflict by trying?

That dream sits in the plot like a bomb waiting to go off and it gives Scott Elliott's terrific production – first seen in New York – more tension than many a thriller. But it all serves the play's apparent main objective, to depict a certain kind of neurosis at its most self-destructive. It's a role and condition the pallid Eisenberg inhabits with nano-second comic timing and, one imagines, must be hard to pull off as both writer and performer if he didn't have some first hand experience of it. Sadly, there's no attempt to investigate its cause. It's just presented as the way some misunderstood people are. I could have done without this dark comedy's sudden, hopeful uplift at the end, a trope of much American drama, but the play is gripping stuff and at least that ending makes Eisenberg's Ben likeable, and the kind of Jew you won't mind being watched by gentiles.

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