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A CurtainUp Review
Happy Talk

You make everything into something happy. — Ljuba, the undocumented Serbian domestic worker, to Lorraine, her American employer, in Happy Talk

. . . I love talking to you. Anything sad in my life is automatically sadder in yours. — Lorraine to Ljuba
happy talk
Marin Ireland and Susan Sarandon (Photo: Monique Carboni)
Jesse Eisenberg's new melodrama Happy Talk, presented by The New Group, features Susan Sarandon, who's making a meal on an unappetizing character named Lorraine.

As a film star, Sarandon has demonstrated remarkable range over 40 years — from the silliness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the gravitas of Dead Man Walking (for which she won the 1995 Best Actress Oscar). She last appeared on the New York stage a decade ago opposite Geoffrey Rush in Ionesco's absurdist drama Exit the King. Her return is welcome; the vehicle she has chosen is kind of a surprise.

At first, Lorraine seems harmlessly loquacious. She calls herself "an eccentric" and a "kind of flighty artist" with her "head in the clouds." In her own estimation, she's the doyenne of the community theater at the Jewish Community Center in her suburban New Jersey town, where she's currently rehearsing the role of Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese peddler of South Pacific. In that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Bloody Mary is a supporting player; Lorraine sees herself as the production's leading lady.

As Eisenberg's title suggests, Lorraine is a master of "happy talk" (an apt characterization of her chatter but also the title of one of Bloody Mary's songs in South Pacific). It's soon evident that all that cheery blather conceals a lot that's worrisome: she's a fantasist, manipulative, and out of touch with reality. Some might say she's out of her mind.

There's plenty in Lorraine's world to drive her crazy. Husband Bill (Dan Oreskes) has multiple sclerosis, which is advancing at a gallop. Daughter Jenny (Tedra Millan) accuses her mother of being "toxic" and rages that she was "raised in this bullshit consumerist culture where toys equaled love and hedonism equaled a good life." Lorraine's elderly mother, Ruthie — an off-stage character reportedly suffering from dementia — never leaves her bedroom and needs constant attention. But as long as she can bask in the follow-spot of her theatrical avocation, Lorraine's inured to all that's challenging, disappointing, and tawdry.

"I'm doing what I love," she says. "I'm one of the lucky ones."

Far less lucky is Ljuba (Marin Ireland), an undocumented Serbian who looks after Ruthie. Though hired by Lorraine as a home health-care assistant, Ljuba does the housework, arranges meals, and is always at Lorraine's beck and call. Because of her immigration status, she keeps a low profile. "I can't drive a car," she says. "I can't go to [the] doctor, if I get sick. I can't take a bus, go to the airport, talk to a policeman like everyone else." Anyone who becomes aware that she doesn't have a green card could "make one telephone call," laments Ljuba, and "take my life in one second."

As written by Eisenberg, Lorraine and Ljuba are a striking pair of codependents. Lorraine provides a place of refuge for Ljuba; but the cost of this safe harbor is high. Ljuba has to handle all the chores Lorraine wants to avoid, stroke her employer's ego, and accept a good deal of belittlement. As played by Sarandon and Ireland, the relationship is a head-on collision with emotional carnage horrific to watch yet fascinating.

In terms of plot, Eisenberg's script is a potboiler about Ljuba's pursuit of a green-card marriage and Lorraine's predictable meddling. Relishing the role of Lady Bountiful, Lorraine recruits Ronny (Nico Santos), one of her fellow thespians, as the groom-for-hire. The plan is promising, until Lorraine senses that Ljuba, whom she's made into her dogsbody, and Ronny, her South Pacific costar, are committing the ultimate sin: paying more attention to each other than to her.

Eisenberg has a knack for compelling dialogue — it's believable (often more believable than the characters who speak it), funny at times, with a narrative drive descended from Ibsen via Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller. Eisenberg also has in common with those dramatists a sense of rectitude that, in Happy Talk, is focused on the plight of refugees like Ljuba. But, where characterization of his protagonists is concerned, Eisenberg tends to disclose all his cards — or, at least, a disproportionate number of them — very early, leaving little for the audience to discover as the evening wears on. In musical terms, his characters enter at forte, crescendo swiftly to fortissimo, with hardly any room to surprise us thereafter. There's quite a surprise in store near the end of Happy Talk, but it's a plot point not a matter of characterization; and that scene could be more powerful if Lorraine's personality (and her flaws) weren't clear from near the start, so that we couldn't predict the catastrophe that's coming.

Director Scott Elliott, who's artistic director of The New Group, treats Eisenberg's script as a suburban gothic thriller. He wrings maximal horror from what the playwright has written (and especially so in the final scene).

Elliott is well supported by a first-class team of designers. Derek McLane's set, representing the combination living room and kitchen of Lorraine and Bill's home, is at once blandly suburban and an eyesore — the kind of environment in which the grotesque and the banal vie for dominance; the kind of place horror might indeed strike. Jeff Croiter's lighting design and the sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen work in tandem to create moody transitions from one scene to another; and, midway through the proceedings, they achieve a moment of nail-biting uneasiness that's fun to remember but would be a spoiler if recounted.

The production's cast is admirable, but three of the members are severely underutilized. Santos, as funny here as he was in Crazy Rich Asians, is lumbered with a role that emphasizes gay-male clich├ęs. He and Ireland are convincing as strangers who quickly become friends; and there's an exquisite melancholy to their brief parting scene that lingers long after the performance has ended.

Millan makes the most of the one-note part of the damaged daughter. Her brief appearance provides a dollop of insight about the dynamics of the family; but it's little more than a drive-by assault of backstory.

As Bill — father, husband, and secret ally to Ljuba — Oreskes manages to express a great deal in very few lines. He did the same in Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre's 2013 premiere of Eisenberg's first high profile play, The Revisionist.

Of course, it's Sarandon, rarely on stage, that audiences are coming to see. And those who see her will get their money's worth. Once upon a time, movie stars steered clear of roles such as Lorraine, fearful that a character's grossly unsympathetic qualities could damage their public images. In the late 1930s, for instance, Lillian Hellman had difficulty finding a prominent actress willing to create the part of Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. (Ina Claire and Judith Anderson turned it down as too distasteful; Tallulah Bankhead accepted it because her career was in a slump.) Sarandon embraces all that's distasteful about Lorraine, making a rip-roaring spectacle of the part, without ever going over the top or upstaging Ireland.

Hellman's Regina is almost likeable compared to Eisenberg's Lorraine. Regina's deviousness is credible in light of her modest origins and relentless ambition. It's much harder to fathom what makes Lorraine tick. She's grandiosity personified. Ireland, as Ljuaba, balances all that's sinister and perplexing in Lorraine with vulnerability, fear, and a self-preserving instinct that are believable and sympathetic. Happy Talk, at least in this world premiere production, belongs equally to Ireland and Sarandon — or, rather, to Ljuba and Lorraine.

Following are links to other plays by Jesse Eisenberg reviewed at Curtainup:

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Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Marin Ireland (Ljuba), Tedra Millan (Jenny), Daniel Oreskes (Bill), Nico Santos (Ronny), Susan Sarandon (Lorraine)
Scenic Design by Derek McLane
Costume Design by Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter
Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas
Fight Direction by UnkleDave's Fight-House
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: One hour forty-five minutes, no intermission
Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street)
From 4/30/2019; opened 5/16/2019;closing 6/16/19.
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 5/11/2019 press preview

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