The Spoils (Trafalgar Studios)

Jesse Eisenberg’s comedy receives its European premiere at the Trafalgar Studios

"Any movie that’s commercially released is necessarily a piece of shit." It’s a strange thing to come from a Hollywood actor’s mouth, let alone his own hand, but the line gets to the heart of Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg‘s third play The Spoils: a study in social superiority and rich-kid privilege.

Eisenberg plays Ben, a wealthy Jewish twentysomething, kicked out of NYU and living rent-free in an apartment bought for him by his father. An aspiring film-maker, he mostly kicks around at home, smoking pot and self-destructing, paralysed by the weight of his own expectations. Privilege has given him every opportunity and, as such, average won’t cut it. He has to be exceptional. For people like him, he says, even banking "is kind of an easy way out."

But exceptional means elevating oneself above everyone else, and Ben cuts everyone and everything around him down. His Nepalese housemate Kalyan (Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar), a modest economics major out to get a good job in the city and the one person who sticks by Ben, bears the brunt of it, but no-one’s spared his scorn. Not Kalyan’s conscientious doctor girlfriend Reshma (Annapurna Sriram); not his old schoolmate Ted (Alfie Allen), an uninspiring Wall Streeter with a slack jaw and no sense of humour. Ben belittles them all, lambasting mainstream tastes, ruining shared jokes and strenuously outdoing them at every turn. He’s a modern-day Misanthrope, bitter as black coffee, who reserves a special kind of hatred for himself. Out of the window, the city looks a long way away. A washed-out, whited-out Jasper Johns flag hangs on the wall.

The one person who meets his standards is Ted’s sweet-hearted fiancé Sarah (Katie Brayben), the woman with whom he’s been infatuated since elementary school. At eight, he dreamt of her shitting in his face and, decades later, clings to the memory of an innocent playground flash. Bidding to impress her, he invites her to see the film he’s working on – footage of a homeless man eating from the trash he’s faked off the back of something Kalyan saw for real. Needless to say, it doesn’t go to plan.

Though it protests to be an arch comedy of manners, The Spoils works best as a character study. It nails something particular – the perils of privilege – and Eisenberg rises to the challenge of wringing pity from the most viciously unlikeable character. Ben can’t help himself. He was damned from the start, isolated by his headstart in life, and, as the others forge a friendship, his self-regard spirals into a deep-seated self-loathing that manifests as self-sabotage. Eisenberg plays him, brilliantly, as a man out of joint with himself, crunched around the furniture as if even the standard sitting position is beneath him.

Yet, Eisenberg still lets us admire Ben – just – suggesting that maybe everyone else, with their crappy, extended in-jokes and their fawning, flattering small-talk, is somehow spoiled in a different way.

The problem, though, is that The Spoils is so fundamentally American – the sort of play that talks its arguments out – that British audiences might struggle. There’s not a trace of metaphor here, and in straining for a credible real-time psychology, The Spoils frequently goes slack as it drags on – a problem exacerbated with humour that gets lost in translation.

Nonetheless, at its sharpest, Scott Elliott's production has the car-crash quality of cringe comedy, with a real crackle to the performances – not least Nayyar’s nerdy Nepali and Brayben’s sympathetic, horrified Sarah. It’s easy to scoff at West End fare, but Eisenberg goes after something and goes after it hard. Even if not entirely victorious, he takes the spoils.

The Spoils runs at Trafalgar Studios until 13 August.