If Woody Allen wrote an episode of Friends…
The billboard for The Spoils proclaims this a dark new comedy play which delves into the everyday lives of an emotionally charged set of characters. I jumped at the opportunity to see it, considering the saturation of musical razzmatazz elsewhere on the West End. Don’t be fooled though: this play also offers glitz, since it is written by and starring the American actor Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network, and Kunal Nayyar of The Big Bang Theory.
The fast-paced, quick-witted script is perfect at portraying the dysfunctional relationship between the main protagonist, Ben (Eisenberg) and his flatmate, Kalyan (Nayyar). Ben presents himself as an existential film-maker who is working on a “new kind of art form that doesn’t yet have a name” (cue rolled-eyes). Of course, in reality he spends much of his time smoking weed, whilst struggling to find his own artistic ideas and narrative. Kalyan, on the other hand, is a Nepalese immigrant trying to make it in the financial world to better his life chances.
Their economic and class backgrounds could not be more different, yet their lives have somehow come together in a peculiar friendship based on dependency and control. Ben holds much of that control: they live in his flat which his father bought, and he allows Kalyan to live rent-free as an act of good will towards his ‘underprivileged’ friend. However, Ben depends on the emotional support that Kalyan provides, despite being frustrated at his aspirations to make it in the western world which Ben himself rejects. Kalyan consistently gains our sympathy as he seems to bear the brunt of Ben’s discontent and struggles in his own attempts to ‘succeed’. Not to give too much away, the arrival of Ben’s old high school crush triggers a series of evolving (and surreal) events... Ben can take these as an opportunity of self-reflection and change, or he can retreat further into his own emotional turmoil.
I imagine that if Woody Allen wrote an episode of Friends, then The Spoils would be close to what is produced; a portrayal of inner conflict, friendship and control in a witty format. What makes this play stand out is that Ben is not a likable character and there are no explanations, or excuses, for why he behaves the way he does towards others. This is a welcome break from the often over-dramatised and saccharine parade of plays, which seek to tell an uplifting tale of the extra-ordinary and unusual. Although focused on Ben, the play delicately interweaves the narratives of Kalyan (and others) producing something which addresses the normal, almost mundane, existential struggles of ‘everyday’ people. With these insights, we can start to think about why so many of us feel so unhappy within the wider framework of race, class, and economics. Ironically though, at £65 a ticket the play is likely to be inaccessible for many, but it is nonetheless entertaining and certainly worth a watch if you can.
- Reviewed by Anita Mehay, Doctoral researcher and Health Psychologist (in training) at Royal Holloway, University of London
The Spoils is running at Trafalgar Studios, London until 13 August 2016.
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