'Happy Talk': Theater Review

Happy Talk-Production Still 2-H 2019
Monique Carboni
Great performances, uneven script.

Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland co-star in the new dark comedy by Jesse Eisenberg, receiving its world premiere from Off-Broadway's The New Group.

If Jesse Eisenberg were older and female, he'd be perfect casting for the lead role in his new play, his fourth to be produced in New York. The actor has long specialized in neurotic, self-absorbed intensity, traits that Lorraine, the housewife and amateur actress at the center of Happy Talk, has in spades. A world premiere staged by Off-Broadway's The New Group (where Eisenberg's The Spoils debuted in 2015), this dark comedy starring Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland proves alternately amusing and discomfiting, which, come to think of it, could be said of many of Eisenberg's performances as well.

The title refers to a song from the musical South Pacific, in which Lorraine (Sarandon) is appearing as the character Bloody Mary in her local Jewish community center production. But it could also apply to everything that comes out of her mouth. Lorraine perpetually projects an air of chipper optimism, which is no mean feat considering that her sullen, barely communicative husband, Bill (Daniel Oreskes), is suffering from multiple sclerosis and her (unseen) elderly mother is spending her final days confined to her bedroom.

Lorraine does have some help with the latter in the form of Ljuba (Ireland), the heavily accented Serbian live-in aide who nearly outdoes her employer in positivity. The two women are extremely close, and Lorraine happily agrees to help Ljuba find someone to marry her so she can obtain a green card and bring her teenage daughter to America. Ljuba has $15,000 saved and hidden away in her mattress to pay her "husband," warning Lorraine that it's not easy to fool the immigration authorities.

"Darling, I'm an artist," Lorraine assures her. "We live in the shadows, we bend the rules."   

In one of the play's funniest scenes, Lorraine brings home her gay co-star Ronny (Nico Santos, Crazy Rich Asians), who desperately needs the money and is willing to assume the role of Ljuba's husband. The two younger people hit it off, and the plan seems to be going swimmingly  at least until Lorraine gets wind of the fact that Ljuba intends to move with her daughter to Florida.

Happy Talk proves genuinely enjoyable in its first half, with Sarandon clearly having a blast as the self-centered diva who revels in her self-proclaimed theatrical success and generosity. Eisenberg's facility for crafting sharply amusing one-liners is on ample display in the sitcom-style interactions between the colorfully eccentric characters.

It's when the play turns darker that it becomes increasingly tiresome and unconvincing. A late-night visit from Lorraine's estranged daughter Jenny (Tedra Millan) turns horribly ugly, featuring emotions that feel unearned considering the preceding jocularity. The climactic scene is similarly problematic with its suggestion that Lorraine will resort to anything to maintain her status quo. What began as a lighthearted comedy becomes much more baroque, with Lorraine displaying a delusional quality that ironically brings to mind Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as played by Sarandon in the miniseries Feud.

Though Scott Elliott's staging fails to provide stylistic cohesion to a play in need of further development, the evening nonetheless has its pleasures, thanks in large part to the terrific performances. Sarandon and Ireland work off each other beautifully. If the latter's accent occasionally seems over-the-top, that might be intentional; her Roseanne Roseannadanna-style inflections are the butt of several jokes. Santos is a hoot as the flamboyant Ronny, raising the comic temperature of every scene he's in. But Millan is unable to make the viciously angry daughter more than a caricature, and Oreskes too often comes across like he's in a Eugene O'Neill drama.

Happy Talk might have worked better if it had settled on being either a frivolous comedy or a psychological drama, thus saving its audiences from tonal whiplash.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Marin Ireland, Tedra Millan, Daniel Oreskes, Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon
Playwright: Jesse Eisenberg
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by The New Group