Jesse Eisenberg has gotten angrier. His first play, Asuncion, was a merciless takedown of white, liberal politics, but at its center was a genuinely warm if dysfunctional love story. His follow-up, The Revisionist, was admittedly colder, pitting a self-absorbed, pretentious writer against a savvy, Polish Holocaust survivor. But The Spoils, now being produced by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, makes John Osborne look positively placid. Ben (Mr. Eisenberg) is a film school dropout who lives in an expensive apartment funded by his parents. He allows his only friend, Kaylan (Kunal Nayyar), to crash for free, though it could be argued that Kaylan pays in emotional turmoil: Ben is hot-and-cold, sometimes full of praise, more often an indefatigable bully who refuses to conform to any social niceties: “You’re looking very Indian tonight,” tells Kaylan’s girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), after interrupting their weekly date. But things get worse—and much more awkward—when Ben finds out that an old childhood companion, Teddy (Michael Zegen), is marrying his first crush, Sarah (Erin Darke). Typically histrionic, he tells Kaylan, “I think that was the last time I was really in love.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Eisenberg plays Ben with ease, as his particular brand of nervous energy lends itself quite well to bursts of rudeness. Mr. Nayyar is also good, his Kaylan a mitigating presence, politely juggling his contemptuous roommate with a superficially more pleasant girlfriend. And Mr. Zegen turns Teddy, a Wall Street “hot shot,” into the tamest and most endearing of the play’s characters; his stuttering pleasantness is the ideal target for Ben’s vitriol.
Mr. Eisenberg is clearly attracted to despicable people, and Ben comes pretty close to being completely unsympathetic. He has clearly learned from a young age that open hostility is the greatest defense against social rejection, and he has the air of a child who flips over a board game when he realizes he’s losing, or who insists on breaking everyone’s toys after he’s broken his own. But he also has a kind of integrity. At his lowest, he says, “You cannot just go through life happy and popular … And shut the rest of the world out,” and while there is some selfishness here (one suspects he might not feel this way if he were popular), he is arguing for a kind of ethics: in the face of the misery experienced by most people in the world, how can we allow ourselves to laugh and drink with friends? Isn’t happiness a little perverse? Doesn’t it require a herculean rejection of reality? In this context, to the victor belongs not the spoils but the guilt of victory.