From the moment Susan Sarandon makes her entrance in Happy Talk, Jesse Eisenberg’s latest play, it is clear her character Lorraine is extravagantly self-absorbed to the point of delusion. She fancies herself a grand dame of the theater, prattling on about how her supporting cast are “what make me possible,” although she’s actually a suburban housewife who’s just come home from rehearsals for a community theater production of South Pacific at the local Jewish Community Center.
All production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
Her husband Bill (Daniel Oreskes) completely ignores what she’s saying, sitting in his armchair reading a history of the Civil War. “Honey, that is such an old man thing to do,” she says to him. “Right before every man dies, they read a book about The Civil War.”
It would be easy to find humor in Lorraine’s vanity and even in her contempt, and to assume that the play will be a comedy. There certainly seems “I Love Lucy’-level comic possibility when Lorraine announces she will become a matchmaker for Ljuba (Marin Ireland, Sneaky Pete) , who is the home aide for Lorraine’s ill mother — especially when the suitor Lorraine comes up with is the very gay Ronny, portrayed by Nico Santos, who is best known for his role as the helpful cousin Oliver in Crazy Rich Asians.
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But Happy Talk is an ironic title for a play that winds up far closer to horror than comedy. Whatever pleasures come from the fine acting by a starry cast in this New Group production directed by Scott Elliott, Happy Talk is ultimately a sour and off-putting play.
This souring seems the playwright’s deliberate choice. In that first scene, Eisenberg offers up a clue to what he’s trying to do, when Lorraine describes the role she’s playing in South Pacific, that of Bloody Mary: “We’re laughing at her — she’s funny, in her way….But, really, she’s a broken woman. She’s a severely broken woman.”
Happy Talk feels intended as an unmasking of Lorraine as a broken woman and her broken relationships – with her invalid mother (whom we never see, but only hear, as a series of beeps summoning Ljuba to her first floor bedroom); with her ill husband, and with her adult daughter (Tedra Millan), who shuns her mother so completely that she rejects the name Lorraine gave her at birth, Jennifer, in favor of Darby. Halfway through the play, in a bizarre and implausible scene, Darby breaks into Lorraine’s house in the middle of the night. She is there, we learn, to say goodbye to her grandmother; Darby is moving the following week with her new husband to Costa Rica. She had hoped to avoid running into her mother, with whom she is very angry, having nothing but unkind things to say to her. Thanks to her mother’s performances in the community theater, Darby says, she has spent her entire life “applauding while my mother flaunts her asshole on stage in front of every one I know, desperate for attention because she can’t stand herself.”
Initially, Lorraine’s relationship with Ljuba seems to be the one exception, and it is the heart of Happy Talk. An undocumented immigrant from Serbia, Ljuba has been the family’s live-in employee for six months as the play begins. Ljuba expresses admiration for Lorraine’s attitude toward life: “You make everything into something happy. I watch you: is like magic. Someone say something sad or angry and you just pretend like what they say is happy. Is like you don’t even hear them sometimes. Is a gift, in some way.”
For her part, Lorraine sees Ljuba as something of a surrogate daughter, and feels a kinship with Ljuba’s life of hardship. “I love talking to you. Anything sad in my life is automatically sadder in yours.”
Ljuba confesses to Lorraine that over the years, Ljuba has painstakingly saved up $15,000, which she keeps in her mattress. She was planning to use the money to pay a legal Serbian-American immigrant to marry her, so that she can gain legal status and bring over her daughter. But the man married somebody else. That is why Lorraine hooks Ljuba up with Ronny, her fellow cast member in the community theater, who needs the money because his breadwinning boyfriend has been out of work for a year.
Ljuba is grateful for Lorraine’s help, but worried that Lorraine will tell too many people: “It’s not perfectly legal.”
“You don’t think I can keep a secret?” Lorraine says.
“I don’t know. You enjoy talking so much.”
“I am a natural performer,” Lorraine says. “But your secret is as safe as money in a mattress!”
It doesn’t take a hugely alert theatergoer to detect the edge in Lorraine’s assurance. And it’s less a surprise than a disappointment that this promising set-up for comic mayhem instead morphs into an ugly and almost surreal betrayal. One could, with extreme charity, compare Eisenberg to Eugene O’Neill in his dissection of the human need for self-delusion – of happy talk as a substitute for real talk. But a main problem with the play is that Lorraine has come off as so monstrous and delusional from the get-go, and Ljuba as so naïve, that we’re left by the end with little insight – and some guilt for having found any of their behavior funny.
Although Eisenberg is better known as a movie actor (The Social Network, Zombieland, Batman v Superman), he has had a second career as a playwright for nearly a decade. Happy Talk is his fourth play produced Off-Broadway, all marked by lively dialogue and at least one obnoxious and self-involved character. In his first three plays — Asuncion in 2011, The Revisionist in 2013, The Spoils in 2015 – the obnoxious and self-involved character was one that Eisenberg created for himself to play. Happy Talk is the first of his plays in which there is no such role for himself; Sarandon and Millan get them. This makes Eisenberg’s lack of sympathy for his characters – his unkindness to them — feel even worse.
Happy Talk is on stage at the Signature Theater Center (480 W 42nd Street, East of Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10014) through June 16, 2019. Tickets and details
Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg. Directed by Scott Elliot. Featuring Marin Ireland, Tedra Millan, Daniel Oreskes, Nico Santos and Susan Sarandon. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell. Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter and Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Produced by The New Group . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandel.
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