Off-Broadway Review: “Happy Talk”

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  • David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member

Happy talk – the type of verbal communication, replete with counterfeit smiles, that too often serves as a replacement for authentic connection between individuals – cascades across the stage at the New Group’s world premiere of Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk” at the New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre.

Lorraine (a broken and dangerous Susan Sarandon) is an actor whose career spans the performance spaces in Jewish Community Centers – currently playing Bloody Mary in “South Pacific” at one such venue. Lorraine has not only missed her chance to perform on Broadway: Lorraine has missed her chance to be an effective daughter, mother, and spouse. Her estranged daughter Jenny (a believable and enraged Tedra Millan) “hates her.” Her husband Bill (a sad and lonely Daniel Oreskes) has become debilitated by both the ravages of Multiple Sclerosis and Lorraine’s indifference. This same familial indifference is reserved for Lorraine’s offstage mother who is bed ridden and – hopes Lorraine – not long for this world.

Into this miasma of despair comes the undocumented Ljuba (an energetic and wizened Marin Ireland) who has come to the United States from Serbia to find a better life and bring her daughter to live with her. In Serbia, Ljuba was a pharmacy student whose studies were cut short when her daughter was born and her now ex-husband left her “for a hooker.” Lorraine has engaged Ljuba to care for her mother, her husband and herself. When Lorraine learns that Lubja has stashed away fifteen thousand dollars for an arranged marriage, the plot of “Happy Talk” changes course. What happens to Lubja’s proposed marriage to Lorraine’s acting partner Ronny (Nico Santos) and where Lubja’s money disappears to is at the center of the storyline spun by the play’s characters and their often less than believable conflicts.

Susan Sarandon delivers an authentic and believable performance as the narcissistic, self-centered, and selfish Lorraine who navigates through her disappointing life by ensnaring other in her poisonous web of self-absorption. One wishes for a more layered performance and it is not clear why that nuance is missing here. Will Jenny make it to Manuel Antonio in the western region of Costa Rica? Will Ljuba marry Ronny and reunite with her daughter? Will Bill and Lorraine’s mother be able to survive Lorraine’s destructive matrix of self-loathing? And what will happen to Lorraine: will there be catharsis, redemption, and release? The audience will find answers to these questions – and others – in Jesse Eisenberg’s somewhat thin “Happy Talk.”

Derek McLane’s appropriately sterile living room set serves as the backdrop for the more seditious shenanigans acted out between Lorraine and the victims of her narcissistic onslaught. Clint Ramos’s costumes successfully counterpoint the personalities of the play’s characters as do Jeff Croiter’s character specific costumes.

Narcissism, self-centeredness, and hubris abide – these three – but perhaps the greatest of these is unbridled narcissism. Susan Sarandon’s portrayal of the self-involved Lorraine is unfortunately limited by Jesse Eisenberg’s script which fails to develop the complicated and layered profile of the narcissist and their effect on those they entrap.

HAPPY TALK

“Happy Talk features” Marin Ireland (Ljuba), Tedra Millan (Jenny), Daniel Oreskes (Bill), Nico Santos (Ronny), and Susan Sarandon (Lorraine).  The production includes Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter and Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. 

“Happy Talk” runs through Sunday June 16, 2019 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street). For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, please visit https://thenewgroup.org/production/happytalk/. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission.

Photo (L-R): Marin Ireland, Susan Sarandon and Tedra Millan in Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk.” Credit: Monique Carboni.