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Review: Jesse Eisenberg in The Spoils, Trafalgar Studios and why I was a very slightly disappointed

Jesse Eisenberg in The Spoils, Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Oliver Rosser

Jesse Eisenberg's background is in theatre - acting and more recently writing - but I've only ever seen him on the big screen so I was naturally curious about his play The Spoils. 

It's set in the modern Manhattan apartment of Ben (Jesse Eisenberg) a drinking, weed-smoking wannabe film-maker from a privileged background. He shares the apartment with Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar) who is a Nepalese immigrant studying business on a scholarship.

At one end of the spectrum Ben is the sort of show off that casually feigns indifference at the other he is narcissistic. He won't take rent from Kalyan but it isn't an altruistic move, it is something he does to elevate his own status, something he can hold over him or throw back at him. Kalyan is someone he can parade, show off about, look down on and just occasionally confide in. Us Brits would call Ben a tosser or a C-word - if we used it - Americans would probably call him a jerk.

When Ben discovers that his school crush Sarah (Katie Brayben) is going to marry straight-laced banker Ted (Alfie Allen), he is determined to woo her away from him.

Like most characters from this mould,  Ben's behaviour is all puff, part of the wall he's built to protect himself not just from the outside world but also from himself.  He constantly seeks approval while rebutting it. He seeks connection and yet pushes it away. The more desperate he gets the more painful and cringe-worthy his behaviour becomes.

At first the script crackles with a quick-fired wit tinged with black humour but as Ben spirals downwards, so the humour gets darker until you reach a point when it difficult to laugh any more and it is at that moment you start to pity him and how messed up he really is.

It is Kalyan, Sarah, Ted and Kalyan's medical student girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram) who all in their own way expose Ben's many flaws. Whether it is the patient, put-upon Kalyan - although he gets his moment - and the compassionate, observant Sarah or Reshma who sees through Ben from the start or the oblivious, beige and steady Ted.

The Spoils is a funny play and the ensemble all hold their own. Jesse Eisenberg is a skilled and talented writer and it was exactly what I expected. And that, conversely, is why I was just a teeny bit disappointed. Having seen the sort of characters he plays on screen it is the sort of play I'd imagine him to write and appear in when a part of me wanted to see a very different side to him. I was watching him do stuff I already know he can do really well. I haven't seen any of the other plays he's written (or performed in) as this is the first to make it to London, perhaps they might have satisfied more on that score.

The Spoils continues at the Trafalgar Studio until August 13 and if you are looking for cheaper ticket options then try the rush tickets, which are £29 for seats on the second row, via the TodayTix's app and available from 10am on the day of the performance.

It is two and a half hours long with an interval and I'm giving it four stars for the writing and performances but it loses half a star for not surprising me, so that makes it a three and a half stars show.