Jesse Eisenberg, best know for movies such as The Social Network, The Squid and the Whale and Now You See Me, arrives in the West End to front the European premiere of his third play as an author and gives a compelling performance as a thoroughly unlikeable and complex misfit.
He stars as Ben, a spoilt Jewish kid living in a Manhattan apartment financed by the bank of dad and with ambitions to be a film-maker — an ambition that’s pretty delusional given that he’s been kicked off the film course at NYU.
Despite his own lack of direction, Ben retains an air of superiority over those working in what he regards as sell-out professions such as finance. This makes his Nepalese flatmate Kalyan (The Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar), with his ambition to work on Wall Street, an easy target to be belittled with that chummy arm around the shoulder attitude that’s supposed to make the patronising ok.
Things are set on a collision course when Ben discovers that former schoolfriend (and one of those despised bankers) Ted (Alfie Allen) is set to marry Sarah (Katie Brayben), a girl Ben has had a crush on for years. For this jerk who has never been denied anything, this can’t be allowed to happen and so begins a plot by Ben to undermine Ted and Sarah’s relationship using every connivance in his armoury.
Given there are no boundaries in Ben’s increasingly pot-addled view of life, events get more out of hand as things look to not be going his way. A scene where he recounts to Sarah an erotic dream he had about her years earlier is so cringeworthy you will probably watch it through your fingers.
It takes a little while to get going with passages of dialogue that border on the indulgent and don’t seem to be taking us anywhere. But when it gets into its stride The Spoils is never less than fascinating thanks to Eisenberg’s twitchy and smart-mouthed turn. He’s a Woody Allen for the 21st century, all coiled-spring neurosis, but with more of a potty mouth and less of the lovability. It’s difficult to take your eyes off of him and it says much for the terrific support cast that they manage to make this an ensemble piece and not let him run away with every scene.
In the end, Ben’s all-consuming loathing of everyone around him is nothing compared to the dislike he has for himself and that just about manages to illicit a twinge of sympathy from us for this monumental pain in the arse.
The Spoils is at the Trafalgar studios until 13 August
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