Saturday, May 25, 2019

17 (2019-2020): Review: HAPPY TALK (seen May 24, 2019)

“Some Unenchanted Evening”

Chances are the title “Happy Talk” immediately brings to mind the song of that name in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, South Pacific. Though never actually sung, it plays a thematic role in the New Group’s production of actor-playwright Jesse Eisenberg’s only intermittently funny, mostly unsuccessful, eponymous dark comedy, spryly staged by Scott Elliot. Not only is one of the play’s two principal characters, Lorraine (Susan Sarandon, imperfectly cast), playing Bloody Mary (talk about strange casting!) in the local Jewish Community Center’s production of South Pacific, she herself might be said to be a victim (among other things psychological) of a “happy talk” syndrome. 
Marin Ireland, Susan Sarandon. Photo: Monique Carboni.
As the other principal character, Ljuba (Marin Ireland, Summer and Smoke), an accented, Serbian immigrant, observes, Lorraine avoids the pain in her life by trying to smile it away: “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.” Lorraine’s real gift, if such it could be called, is her ability to ignore the needs of anyone other than herself.
Daniel Oreskes, Susan Sarandon, Nico Santos. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Superficially, her life seems fine. A narcissistic 60-year-old (which the 72-year-old Sarandon pulls off easily), her life is dedicated to acting in community theatre productions, where the fellowship she shares (or believes she does) with her collaborators makes her think of them (if not they of her) as family. Someone who needs always to be the center of attention, and never stops nattering away, she considers herself the group’s indisputable star although she seems only to be cast in supporting roles; her finest accomplishment is cited as the secondary role of Ellen, the soldier’s wife in Miss Saigon. When she sings (a misleading verb) “Bali Ha'i,” you actually need the recorded version that follows to show how it ought to be done.
Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland, Nico Santos. Photo: Monique Carboni.
She wears nice, casual tops (excellent costumes by Clint Ramos) and lives in a comfortable New Jersey house. Its Raymour and Flanigan-style living room (designed by Derek McLane, with suitable lighting by Jeff Croiter)—including posters of her community theatre shows—resembles the generic, white, middle-class beige interior lived in (and satirized) by the black family in the Pulitzer-winning Fairview.
Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland. Photo: Monique Carboni.
However, Lorraine’s mother, Ruthie—offstage and never seen—is seriously declining and, using a buzzer, reliant on the diapering and other services of the pretty, eternally upbeat (speaking of happy talkers), 40-year-old Ljuba. The latter has been both her caretaker and the family’s general factotum for the past six months, and never complains about the demands made by the crabby Ruthie, whom someone calls “a shriveled old cunt.”
Daniel Oreskes, Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland.
Lorraine can’t bear to even look at her mother. And, while she likes to say sweet nothings to her laconic, morose, and sullen lump of a Laze-E-Boy-sitting spouse, Bill, who suffers from MS and ED,  she consigns his most pressing needs to Ljuba. Daniel Oreskes’s (Hir) Bill is vinegary enough to make lemon seem sweet; it's easy to see why.
Marin Ireland, Susan Sarandon, Tedra Millan, Photo: Monique Carboni.,
Lorraine also has a daughter, a hateful misery named Jennifer (Tedra Millan, The Wolves, perfectly nasty), a Noam Chomsky-reading radical, who enters late in the play, despises her mother and her middle-class life, but demonstrates childlike affection for Bill. She even rejects her name in favor of “Darby”:I go by Darby because you gave me a shit name that’s stuck in your antiquated binary bubble.”
Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland, Tedra Millan. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Her irritating presence seems necessary mainly to demonstrate Lorraine’s alienation from her daughter in contrast to Ljuba, desperate to bring her own daughter over from Serbia. It also stresses the ideal mother-daughter relationship Lorraine fantasizes having with Ljuba when Bill and Ruthie are gone. And, of course, there’s the layer of Bloody Mary and her daughter, Liat, in love with Lt. Cable, represented in the Lorraine, Ljuba, Ronny triangle.

A plot develops when Lorraine learns that Ljuba has managed to stash away $15,000 toward paying $30,000 to some TBD man with American citizenship for a green card marriage so she can escape the constraints of her undocumented status. Lorraine, like Yenta the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, makes a match between Ljuba and Ronny (Nico Santos, Crazy Rich Asians, stereotypical but sweet), a flamboyantly gay, Asian-American actor playing Lt. Cable to her Bloody Mary, Ronny lives with his boyfriend but needs the cash. Predictably, Ronny and Lorraine engage in the tiresome, gay trope of quoting Broadway lyrics.

There are a number of implausibilities, like the long, unfunny sequence of taking photos to establish Ronny and Ljuba's ongoing relationship. Oddly, it involves Lorraine’s old Hasselblad instead of the more obvious phone camera most people would use. If it's meant to get laughs, it doesn't. There's also the flaming Ronny’s being cast as the romantic Cable; the ballet scenario Ljuba creates in which she’ll be the romantic heroine and her boss the witch (hint, hint), and so on. So many such contrivances stick in one's critical throat it's impossible to swallow most of what happens in the play.

Throughout this intermissionless, hour-and-45-minute exercise, Eisenberg drops foreshadowing bricks that fall so loudly you have a good idea of what’s coming almost as surely as if a gun had been introduced. Nevertheless, when predictability becomes reality, your stomach will churn from what the playwright’s twist of the dial requires Lorraine to do. We may have had a notion of what was coming but not to the discouragingly exaggerated degree Eisenberg takes it.

Sarandon, for all her intelligence and charisma, seems out of place in this particular household; she captures her role’s darker side but the manic comedy parts fall short. You may even wonder why she chose this vehicle for her first New York stage role in 10 years. Still, you can’t deny viscerally hating Lorraine at the end, which is very much to the star's credit.

Ireland, as Ljuba, sports a totally unconvincing accent and spouts dialogue it’s unlikely would come from this Serbian immigrant. Nonetheless, it's fun to see her take this pleasantly kooky detour into comedy from her usually dour roles in serious dramas. As a friend accurately mentioned, it’s hard not to hear her chipper, high-pitched voice without thinking of Gilda Radner.

Call me a cockeyed optimist but I look forward to some enchanted evening when Jesse Eisenberg will no longer wonder how it feels (younger than springtime, perhaps?) to make us fall in love with a wonderful play. Happy Talk is not nearly that one. 

The Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 16