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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Spoils
Trafalgar Studios  Summer 2016

American movie star and occasional playwright Jesse Eisenberg has written a comedy-drama with a good quota of laughs, some bite and, not incidentally, a big juicy role for himself. 

Eisenberg plays Ben, New York film school dropout and stoner, living off daddy's largesse with roommate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), a more serious business student from Nepal. 

At first it seems like this is going to be a comedy of the American educating and perhaps debauching his innocent pal. But it soon becomes apparent that Ben is the more fragile of the two, the pressures of living in denial of his failures constantly threatening to overwhelm him, and that it is Kalyan who is forced into the guiding and protective role. 

And then the reappearance of a girl he had a crush on as a pre-teen threatens to send Ben into total meltdown. Just how far his collapse will go, what form it will take, and how it will affect the others around him is the spine of the play. 

There are a lot of legitimate laughs along the way, less a matter of witty lines than of repeated shocks of recognition ('I know someone who acts just like that!'). But they alternate and frequently overlap with moments of real psychological danger, as Ben begins to crumble and to lash out at others in his pain. 

Directed by Scott Elliot, who staged an earlier Off-Broadway production, Eisenberg makes Ben an alternately pitiable and frightening bundle of raw nerves from the start, his wit and deliberate flirtations with offensiveness clearly lash-out-first defences, and his barely-controlled tension making every outrageous comment or behaviour sadly believable.

If there is a criticism to be made, it is that we are a little too often aware of the actor being clever and working at a carefully planned-out performance, our admiration of his technique getting in the way of his characterisation. 

Kunal Nayyar plays a steelier and more serious version of his character in TV's Big Bang Theory, and the other three performers Katie Brayben as the girl from Ben's past, Alfie Allen as her current boyfriend and Annapurna Sriram as Kalyan's girlfriend do more than you might think possible to round out and individualise characters who are really little more than plot devices and window dressing. 

The Spoils is not a play for the ages. But it offers a large enough share of laughs and of thought-provoking insights, along with an impressive central performance, to make for a satisfying evening's entertainment.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Spoils - Trafalgar Studios 2016 
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