A fantastic star, a problematic plot.
Marrickville’s Flight Path Theatre brings to life the third play by America actor-playwright Jesse Eisenberg, exploring themes of privilege, envy and broken people.
Eisenberg’s script punches you in the face from the get-go, with its rollercoaster of word-play, foul-play, and foul-mouths, and director Ian Warwick works a talented cast who keep up the pace. There are moments that are powerful, moments that are hysterical… and moments that don’t make much sense at all.
Ben (Michael Becker) is racist, sexist, self-absorbed dickhead, who treats the people around him like abused pets; in particular, his roommate Kalyan (Kabir Singh) – a Nepalese immigrant who takes the beatings like a puppy getting kicked.
When Ben finds out that the girl of his (uh, somewhat vivid) dreams Sarah (Isabel Dickson) is marrying a Wall Street square named Teddy (Hayden Hawkins), Ben isn’t happy. HE loves Sarah. He is WAY more interesting, despite being a failed film-maker who lives off his dad’s coin. He will win her back! No matter what it takes.
Whilst costume changes could have been snappier, with long transitions having the audience chatting in between scenes which distracted from the show, set designer Irma Calabrese does a good job making the audience believe they are in a swanky New York apartment when something is happening, with trendy light fittings and minimalist design – even if the sticky Sydney heat of the theatre quashed that fantasy at times.
Also, hough there were some standout stand-alone performances, the relationships between characters felt inconsistent and often insincere. Singh is adorable as Kalyan, whose goofy smile and enthusiasm for life can’t help but make you chuckle. While occasionally overbearing with some of his more serious lines, Singh was earnest in his performance. However, the chemistry with on-stage girlfriend Reshma (Rebecca Abdel Missih) had about as much romantic ambience as a hospital waiting room.
Becker is outstanding in the hyper-manic role of Ben, and is reason alone to see this show. He paces the stage with nervous energy, puffing on joints and delivering lines with impeccable comedic rhythm. We almost like him, thanks to Becker’s fantastic performance.
And that’s where my main gripe with this show lies.
By making a character like Ben, who is an abuser, also likeable – and worse, has an ending that wants us to feel sorry for him – starts to feel like a slap in the face to their victims.
Dickson has a sweet nature about her as Sarah, though when Ben inappropriately confesses his love for her, then – ahem, sexually assaults her on his couch – she acts more like he farted quietly in front of her and merely shrugs it off. In fact, the (only) two female characters are sexually assaulted at some point during the play by the main star, and boy does it feel totally unnecessary.
If you can get past that tone of this play, The Spoils delivers constant laugh-out-loud moments and candid reflections on topics like privilege and envy.
No matter how hard Kalyan works, he can’t seem to get ahead, meanwhile Ben is – for all intents and purposes – a massive loser, who doesn’t work hard for anything, yet still seems to come out on top. The complex relationship between the two housemates sways between Ben’s genuine envy of hard-working Kalyan, and a genuine belief that he’s better than the guy who comes from ‘a fucking poor country like Nepal’.
Either way, Kalyan is simply a punching bag for Ben, and both Singh and Becker’s performances walk the tightrope of their fragile ‘bromance’ well.
Eisenberg has said The Spoils “is not about a mean guy who gets his comeuppance”, so I guess it begs the question. Are broken people – no matter how much they try to break others – deserving of our sympathy regardless?
This reviewer thinks not.