Friday, September 18, 2015

"The Spoils": Jesse Eisenberg explores self-serving values in his new play (a "comedy")


As anyone learns in high school English (here I am, talking like “The Sub”), the next best thing to going to a “legitimate” stage play is to read one. 

That’s particularly true with young playwright Jesse Eisenberg, the actor who has played Mark Zuckerberg (and imitated Zuck on SNL), as well as a Pulitzer journalist and then a CIA retread. 
     
The Spoils” was produced at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York in May and June of 2015. On my next Amtrak visit to NYC (need to ride up the new Freedom Tower), I’ll visit the facility.  The website for the production is here. I don’t know if this is defined as “Broadway” or not. Don’t know if Signature in New York has any connection to the ample Signature Theater in Arlington VA (in the Shirlington Village), which could be a good future venue for this play if it comes to DC.

The “book”, 104 pages paper, is published by Grove Press, which used to be right next door to me when I lived in the Cast Iron Building in the 1970s.  The ISBN is “978-0-8021-2390-9”.

The play has five characters, and is set in “modern apartment in New York City”.  It’s probably more spacious than my old pad on the sixth floor of the Cast Iron Building, where I once hosted an event with 30 people (“Understanding”, back in 1976).  Maybe it has high ceilings.  Maybe Donald Trump built it.  Well, the furniture is dumpy; Trump wouldn’t live like that. There are two acts, and eight scenes.

The protagonist is Ben, whom Jesse played in the NYC run.  Ben is a late-20s-something who has been kicked out of grad school and lives on his parents’ dime. Yet he has a roommate Kaylan  from Nepal (Kunal Nayyar), who seems to live off him. Kaylan has published a book on international third-world economics (quasi dissertation) that no one has bought, and seems to need a job himself.  OK, Kaylan is working on his MBA.  (I used to call a particular friend “The Young MBA.”) Then Ben has an ex-girl-friend Sarah (Erin Drake), who now dates (and is actually engaged to) Ted (Michael Zegen), who still likes to sell derivatives on Wall Street.

  
Ben also pretends to be a filmmaker, and brags about a “reality” short he has made about homeless street life.  Ben sets out to win Sarah back by showing her the film and pretending it is more than it is. 
The play seems to focus on character.  Ben bullies everybody and doesn’t care.  But Kaylan and Ted are both naïve about the trials of the real world and insensitive to others in their own ways. (Kaylan is above minimum wage work.) The play has an undertone of protesting inequality, even as demonstrated by the paradox of how he handles the “shitty” subject matter of homeless people.


Will the play become an indie movie?  The round-robin of interactions between the characters is somewhat parallel to that of one of my favorite films, “Judas Kiss” (Movies blog, June 4, 2015).  While this play is in the straight world, the parallels are rather striking. Ben could be compared to the character Shane Lyons (in Judas),  a college student whose actor (Beligan-born Timo Descamps) describes as “rich, kind of spoiled, and a little mean”.  But, as Timo plays the character, Shane (majoring in music) comes across as clean-cut and overpowering, if self-serving in the way he manipulates others into dependent relationships with him. Jesse plays his own character with a someone uncouth cast, with the dirty language and the smoking.  Jesse has sometimes said that Ben could have represented the worst in himself if he had let it happen.  I wondered, could Timo have played Ben on stage and could Richard Harmon play Ted?

There’s one particular line on p. 85 where Sarah says to Ben, “But we had all the same interests. I’m marrying Ted because he love back in an adult way. In a real way. He takes care of me.” (My emphasis.) On p. 270 of my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book, the short story “Expedition”, p. 270, the character Randy, ambushing “me” by talking about his fiancee, says to me at dinner in a coal country remote cafe, “I depend on Karen, That’s got a lot to do with why I date her. I find I need her presence to enjoy things. No doubt she’s made a few significant changes in me, and that’s all for the good.” I have to wonder something else:  Is it good to expect someone to love you back just because you think you love him/her? 

Stage acting would seem to be very demanding, to perform the same work night-after-night, even if you wrote it. Jesse says actors and playwrights make very little doing this compared to movies.

Kunnal has a new book, “Yes, My Accent Is Real” and Eisenberg has a story collection “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”.  Eisenberg has two other plays, “The Revisionist” (with John Patrick Shanley) and “Asuncion”.

Update: Aug. 3, 2016

Ezra Klein of Vox has a piece on Eisenberg's work here

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