Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 9th June, 2016
Jesse Eisenberg’s play comes to London in this lively revival, now including a couple of British actors along with three of the original cast, including Eisenberg himself, starring as prickly Ben, an abrasive, privileged individual whose sense of humour is both a weapon and a shield. Cue an almost ceaseless stream of witty retorts and barbed comments, delivered in a quick-fire barrage.
Sharing Ben’s New York apartment is BFF Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar off of The Big Bang Theory). Nayyar looks quite at home on Derek McLane’s sitcom set but here gets to flex his acting chops, when Ben at last pushes Kalyan too far. Before things come to a devastating head, Ben and Kalyan’s friendship is a mutually supportive banter-fest. Their closeness is apparent – and so we see that something special is under threat.
Nepalese Kalyan’s strong-willed Indian girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram) pulls him in another direction – giving rise to more scorn and verbal abuse from Ben. A chance encounter with old school friend Tom (Alfie Allen off of Game of Thrones) revives Ben’s schoolboy crush on their mutual classmate Sarah (Katie Brayben). The trouble is, Tom is currently engaged to Sarah. Ben ups his game; his remarks become snider, his barbs more cutting – And yet we can’t help feeling for him. We see the sweetness beneath the acerbic outer coating, and we are touched by Ben’s misguided efforts to win the girl.
Alfie Allen is good fun as Tom, a steaming great nit, albeit a decent enough cove. Annapurna Sriram is striking as the assertive Reshma, and Katie Brayben charms as the object of Ben’s sometimes scatological affections.
While Eisenberg is a generous enough playwright not to hog all the best lines for himself, ultimately and perhaps inevitably, the show is chiefly a vehicle for his skills as a writer and his talent and charisma as a performer. The pace is rapid and the timing is impeccable. We get ferocity and vulnerability in the space of a breath. And funny! The packed matinee audience was roaring throughout. Director Scott Elliott knows when to rein in Ben’s tirades and how to highlight moments of silence to make them as eloquent and as charged as any speech.
More of a latter-day, foul-mouthed Neil Simon than a kvetching Woody Allen, Eisenberg delivers a relentlessly entertaining comedy with clearly defined, layered characters and a core of emotional honesty and truth.