Saturday, May 25, 2019

Happy Talk

I suspect that there is a good play inside Jesse Eisenberg's Happy Talk, currently  at The New Group at the Signature Center. The ideas and the situation are intriguing, and there is humor and insight in the telling. But, at least here, its good points are eclipsed by its problems.

Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) feels unmoored and lonely. Her (never seen) mother is bedridden and slowly dying in a room on the first floor. Her husband, Bill (Daniel Oreskes), barely speaks, so sunk is he in depression and multiple sclerosis. And her daughter, Jenny (Tedra Millan), has been out of touch for months. Lorraine does have a couple of things going for her: Her mother's caregiver, Ljuba (Marin Ireland), a cheerful woman from Serbia, provides Lorraine with emotional support and something resembling friendship, and Lorraine is playing Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the local Jewish Community Center. As happens in dramas of this sort, things are not quite what they seem, secrets are revealed, and people learn more about themselves and each other than they necessarily want to know.

The problem with Happy Talk is that, rather than peeling the onion to get deeper into the story and people's psyches, it switches onions a few times and even throws in an apple and an orange. In other words, one thing does not lead to another: the character revelations seem, well, out of character; the tone of the play pivots without logic; and the pay off is bizarre and unconvincing. Having seen and enjoyed Eisenberg's work before, I suspect that these problems could be solved in three ways: (1) rewrites, (2) better casting, and (3) better direction.

It must be a thrill to get a movie star like Susan Sarandon in your Off-Broadway play. Fame often brings with it free publicity and increased ticket sales, and, hey, it's Susan Sarandon! However, Sarandon is miscast; she lacks the size and personality of the sort of (white!) woman who would adore playing Bloody Mary, believe she's great in the role, and speak of herself as an "artist." The other problem is that Sarandon is pretty mediocre in the role. I have loved many of her performances in movies, but she is lost on stage, lost and uncomfortable. And her comic timing is awful. I sympathized with Eisenberg as his jokes and character bits fell flat because Sarandon simply didn't know what to do with them.

And then there's the direction of Scott Elliot. He lets Sarandon flounder. Worse, he directs three of the other four performers to eliminate subtlety and rely on either shtick or speedy yelling. Ireland eventually plays Ljuba as a complex human being, but in the beginning of the show she's a cartoon with an  embarrassingly exaggerated accent. I suspect that Ireland and Elliot are trying to show how Ljuba has to perform the role of cheerful caregiver, but the first 20 minutes or so are cringe-worthy. As the daughter, Millan barrels through her speeches, though she's lovely in her scenes with her father. Nico Santos, as a gay man "dating" Ljuba, manages to provide warmth and individuality here and there, but otherwise tips into caricature. Only Oreskes provides a wholly successful performance.

I hope that Happy Talk has a future. Its ideas about loneliness, ego, and desperation are interesting, and I suspect that their presentation could be compelling and touching. Just not here.

Wendy Caster
(sixth row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 60

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