The spirit of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems to hover somewhere near Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, The Spoils (now being premiered by The New Group), for it presents a character in pain who manipulates, tramples on, or tears down those around him: the twentysomething Ben, whom we meet and immediately distrust when he callously barges in on his roommate’s in-home date. Oddly, there’s also something of Peer Gynt’s multiplicity in this character; Ben is by turns a charmer, a liar, a would-be seducer, a wannabe filmmaker, attention-seeking, facile with words, regretful, benevolent, and impressed with himself, yet he doesn’t have much of a center. He’s also like Peer in that, at the same time, one wouldn’t mind seeing him whipped and yet hopes for his redemption—which, just as in Peer’s case, will have to come from other people, for he is, by the play’s end, pretty much unredeemable on his own merits. Distasteful as he is, one can’t help being intrigued by him; part of me wants to forget I met him, and another part wonders whether Eisenberg should revisit him later, as François Truffaut did with Antoine Doinel—who was, however, much more rewarding to spend time with.
The play and its production abound in miscalculations. It’s too diffuse to justify its two-and-a-half-hour length; there were stretches when my mind was so tempted to wander that I had to force myself to pay attention. The set (by Derek McLane), a relatively small but impressive New York apartment that includes a video projector, a full though compact kitchen, and sliding glass doors onto a balcony, immediately tells us that Ben is well set up; we soon begin to wonder how he affords it and how he occupies himself. The play treats this financial question as something of a mystery, whose answer doesn’t arrive until the second act, but it’s no surprise—far from being a minor revelation, it’s mere information. Likewise, we suspect from his early intrusion that Ben is going to cause havoc in the lives of the four other characters: his roommate (Kunal Nayyar), the roommate’s girlfriend (Annapurna Sriram), a former public-school friend (Michael Zegen), and that friend’s fiancée (Erin Darke), whom Ben was once fond of. But the play takes way too long to bring it about.
There are smaller problems, too, such as an incident on the street that Ben claims to have documented, which everyone nonsensically accepts as though it constituted an entire film, capable of being submitted to a festival. The oddest thing is that Eisenberg the actor—he’s playing the central role—undermines Eisenberg the playwright. The actor conveys from the outset that something is itching to get out of Ben and that its emergence isn’t going to be pretty. I’m not sure we would otherwise stay interested, because of the script’s slow and methodical progress, yet it strikes me as a mistake to reveal so much of the character right away. Not every actor is capable of such a feat, but perhaps the director, Scott Elliott, whose staging otherwise matches the script’s cautious care, should’ve restrained Eisenberg a bit.
The Spoils is being presented by The New Group in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, which is part of the Pershing Square Signature Center, through June 28. Information is available here.