Theatre Review: The Spoils

“I believe in the ritual of lipstick;/The sanctity of my electric guitar.”

Erin McKeown

I am at Nine Worlds today (ZOMG!), so this post is brought to you from The Past – the secret to time travel being meticulous planning.

I saw The Spoils at the New Trafalgar Theatre (according to the Internet, anyway) late in June; its run finishes tomorrow, on the 13th. So, you know, this is obviously going to be an extremely useful review.

Flippancy aside: you only really need to know one thing about The Spoils, which is that it stars, and is written by, Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network fame.

This is by no means a bad thing; it’s just an excellent index of what kind of story this is. Eisenberg plays Ben, a twenty-something university dropout living off his parents money who claims that he’s an arthouse film creator but who rarely seems to do any actual filming. When he hears that his sort-of childhood sweetheart Sarah is marrying a random guy from school, he convinces his extremely put-upon housemate Kalyan (a Nepalese immigrant played by Kunal Nayyar of, yes, The Big Bang Theory) to invite the couple over for dinner.

Of course, this is never a good idea and does not go at all well.

So I have mixed feelings about The Spoils.

On the one hand: I think it is doing something genuinely engaging: it begins as a light (and very funny) comedy about an intelligent dickhead who wants to bring down the Man in a vague and middle-class way – until it changes, ve-e-ry slowly, and you get more and more uncomfortable as the extent of Ben’s issues becomes clear, and should you really be laughing as this guy self-destructs? but you do anyway, because everyone else is. It’s a clever piece of deconstruction, and Eisenberg is absolutely key to it: you simply can’t watch anyone else when he’s on stage. The play, I think, is something of a study in sympathy: we’re led into caring quite deeply about a hugely toxic personality, and the play is doing some thinking around worth, and what makes a human worthwhile. (Sarah is a teacher of kids in prison; Ben does pretty much nothing all day. So why do we care more about Ben than Sarah?)

Unfortunately, the play doesn’t really know what to do with the destructive energies it unleashes and explores over the course of its two acts: its ending refuses the uncomfortable nuance of the play as a whole to resolve those energies in a thoroughly conventional Hollywood ending that asks us to believe (unearned) that one choice made decades ago is enough to give a life worth. As a result, there’s a lot left unexamined in the play, not least the tensions around race and gender that raise their ugly heads in the penultimate scenes; they remain curiously and troublingly unresolved, not least because it’s the white characters – all the white characters – who gain resolution and closure while the play’s two POCs are virtually forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong: The Spoils is a hugely watchable play, almost entirely because of Eisenberg’s absolutely remarkable stage presence. But I don’t feel like it’s a particularly brave or true one.

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