First Nighter: Jesse Eisenberg's Spoiled 'The Spoils,' David Greenspan Snappily Takes on Gertrude Stein

06/02/2015 11:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

Sometimes the unforgettable characters populating your personal landscape are the ones you'd most like to forget. For The Spoils, his new play at The Pershing Square Signature Center, Jesse Eisenberg has written such a character and is so enamored of how unforgettable this one is that he's playing the odious fellow himself.

Ben calls himself a documentarian, but little stage time elapses before the realization hits audience members that he talks a relatively good game but it's likely not much documentary footage has been digitalized. His more habitual pastime is bullying his 30-ish Nepal émigré roommate Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar) of whom he asks no rent at their swanky Derek McLane designed digs.

Kalyan isn't the only one whom Ben taunts at the drop of a hat or at the drop of anything else in the absence of a hat -- shattered glass, for instance. He swaps bad words with Kalyan's physician girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna (Sriram) as well as with longtime chum Ted (Michael Zegen) and his fiancée Sarah (Erin Darke). Sarah is someone whom Ben has known since childhood. She was his boyish crush back then, and their shared past comes to complicate matters now.

Because Ben is a nasty guy through and through and is also an inventive verbal abuser, Ben stalks his friends individually and collectively when they're visiting or, in the instance of Kalyan, perpetually on the premises. His elaborate fulminations are impressively rapid-fire but also excessive. He's never at a loss for stinging words, whereas the others occasionally have to catch their breath.

Therein lies the play's besetting and ultimately insurmountable obstacle. Ben is so alienating that it's difficult to accept that anyone would put up for him for more than a minute or two. Maybe five, but no more. Perhaps Kalyan endures the unbridled wrath because he's there rent-free and that's the trade-off, but even that is turned against him during one of embittered Ben's impromptu tirades. Reshma allows her objections to Ben emerge but spends other stretches avoiding him by smoking on the terrace. The amiable Ted lets the spoken carnage wash over him.

Before the fade-out, it looks as if Sarah is about to receive even worse vituperation than Kalyan when Ben -- thinking he can win her from Ted by screening a film fragment in which she's shown interest -- invites her for a viewing with ulterior motives. She recognizes the tactic and calls Ben on it, whereupon he responds by detailing a coprophilic dream he had as a kid and in which Sarah played a major role.

That, by the way, is ostensibly where the title's meaning surfaces, and it's not valentine-pretty. In other words, just when patrons have determined Ben couldn't become more unbearable, he does exactly that.

Perhaps because Eisenberg is aware of the credulity he's stretching far beyond the snapping point, he scratches around for a way to redeem Ben and locates one. Maybe that's better phrased by saying he manufactures it. Too little, too late -- just another unbelievable turn in the narrative.

The only mitigating factors in Eisenberg's play are Scott Elliott's fearless direction and the performances. Eisenberg himself obviously created the part so that he could go as far with it as possible, apparently oblivious to the possibility that spectators would quickly resist going along with him.

Nayyar does right by the accommodating Kalyan, even in a scene in which Eisenberg has the poor guy break down. The more realistic response would be Kalyan's giving Ben heated what-for, then grabbing his bags and slamming the door behind him. Sriram is appealingly cool at Reshma's treatment of Ben, and Darke handles the pleasantly adult Sarah well.

Somewhere in The Spoils, there's a discussion wherein someone says something about the risk of presenting too antagonistic a protagonist. Since Eisenberg's name is on the work, he must have come up with the line. Too bad he didn't listen more closely to it.
One of the busiest men in New York theater, David Greenspan never lets himself off the hook when composing something for himself or committing to something he didn't write but in which he strongly believes.

So he here is with Composition...Master-Pieces...Identity, which he's conceived and performs, in a Target Margin Theater production at the Connelly. This is one he hasn't written. The writer is Gertrude Stein. Greenspan has selected three of her pieces, the first of which he recites, the second of which her reads -- both of them lectures -- and the third of which, a poem, he enacts.

The title of each is a fair announcement of what Stein will be discussing and deconstructing, but the content won't be described at length here. They're produced in her instantly recognizable and playful tautological, solipsistic, repetitive language. Close listens to them reveal that she has pithy things to offer on the techniques of composition, the rarity of masterpieces and the mystery of identity. In "Identity," for instance, Stein reiterates "I am I" with subtly shifting ramifications and sly humor.

As the 90 or so minutes (with intermission) of Composition...Master-Pieces...Identity pass, it becomes clear that the Stein/Greenspan compilation is as much about performance as it is about the arcane subject matter. Wearing a solid-color shirt and trousers and rearranging a table, a chair and a thermos before each segment, Greenspan particularly raises the question in spectators' minds as to how he was able to memorize the devilish "Composition as Explanation."

Committing that one to memory with its repeated phrases containing only the slightest changes has to be the equivalent for actors of climbing Mount Everest for mountaineers. Astonishingly, Greenspan never -- but never -- stumbles. From beginning to end he orates lucidly, and as he does, craftily approaches his own masterpiece.