In a Hollywood known for its alpha males, Jesse Eisenberg is one of its betas – a gangly, geeky, nerdy, weedy, Woody Alleny wimp of man who, unlike say Sylvester Stallone, would come second best in a bout of shadow boxing. It is tempting, therefore, to conclude that in his West End debut as both actor and author, the film star whose biggest role is probably Mark Zuckerberg in the movie The Social Network, here plays to his on-screen strengths – or should that be weaknesses.
Eisenberg's Ben is a socially awkward wannabe filmmaker, the kind of neurotic New York Jew who seemingly talks at the speed of light to keep up with the blizzard of thoughts his brain sends to his mouth. He’s a recognisable archetype, the kind that David Mamet once hypothesised as being typical of Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern European origin), a disproportionate section of whom might suffer from Asperger's syndrome, a condition that often denudes or denies those who have it the ability to edit their utterances before they are uttered, and also to judge social situations. This results in their riding roughshod over the feelings of others, and saying things out loud that many people might be too offended to even think, qualities which can apparently lead to success in the film business according to Mamet.
It could be said that Ben is one such. He is not yet big in film – and possibly never will be – but he has a matchless talent to be the funniest, cleverest and rudest person in the room, which here is a smart Manhattan apartment where Ben lives with the much more mild-mannered Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), a Nepalese immigrant with ambitions to make it on Wall Street.
Into this space Ben invites for dinner two former schoolmates, Ted (Alfie Allen), who Ben recently bumped into on the street, and Ted's fiancée Sarah (Katie Brayben), a girl about whom Ben, he confesses to Kalyan, once had a sexually explicit dream when he and she were eight. Since then his Katie obsession has scuppered any attempts to form meaningful relationships, presumably because he cannot resist replicating the fantasy that has haunted him ever since he had it.
Crucially, we are talking about a fantasy that is so taboo, Ben's confession sits in the plot like a gun waiting to go off. And like all guns introduced in the first act, this one goes off in the third.
The wait lends Scott Elliott's production a good deal of tension. And you can't help but admire Eisenberg for presenting to his audience a character who alienates them the more he is on stage. A collective ewww rises when Ben relates his innermost thoughts. Almost as unedifying is his attempt to win Sarah's heart through lies and manipulation. What emerges is a figure who imposes on himself a state of exile from those closest to him, and in that sense Ben is a study of self-sought unpopularity, a little-explored theme in theatre.
What the play lacks, however, is any enquiry as to how such a condition comes about. Ben's redeeming features arrive just in time to add a little love to the loathing, but though it crackles with dialogue Eisenberg's play is much more portrait than exploration. Perhaps even self-portrait. It is difficult therefore to imagine future productions of the work without its motor-mouth author as the anti-hero.
There is some very good work from the supporting cast, with the versatile, award-winning Brayben (past roles include Carole King in the musical Beautiful) and Nayyar as the well-adjusted foils to the dysfunctional Ben. And Allen is terrific as Sarah's guileless, slightly stupid boyfriend. But ultimately this play is all about the mesmerising Eisenberg, which is both its strength and its weakness.