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Theatre in Review: Happy Talk (The New Group/Pershing Square Signature Center)

Daniel Oreskes, Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland. Photo: Monique Carboni

The playwright Jesse Eisenberg draws his characters with such penetrating insight, such ruthless exactitude, that he sometimes leaves the audience with nothing to discover. Consider the case of Lorraine, the central character of Happy Talk and what a perfect little horror she is: Going about her business as wife, mother, and doyenne of her suburban New Jersey community theatre, she is sunnily abrasive, a needy narcissist for whom sensitivity and boundaries don't exist. Of course, nobody wants to preside over a household with an elderly, bedridden mother and a spouse afflicted with multiple sclerosis and depression; then again, it's probably not productive to stand within earshot of both and announce, "God, I really am surrounded by dying people."

Shocked? Lorraine is just getting started. Discovering Bill, her spouse, immersed in a book about the Civil War, she dismisses it as "a rite of passage for the River Styx," adding, "Is that what you want, Bill? To die? Because that's where you're headed." If only she paid as much attention to the painful spasms that are annihilating his spirit. Standing in the doorway of her mother's sickroom, she pronounces this benediction: "May your dirty diapers nourish the hungry and your drool quench the thirsty." You will be relieved to know that the care of these two sufferers is not in Lorraine's hands; instead, Ljuba, the saintly, ever-cheerful caregiver, deals with the details Lorraine prefers not to know about. Despite her militantly optimistic attitude, Ljuba, an undocumented Serbian, lives with constant anxiety. When Lorraine suggests that she talk back to a snippy checkout clerk, Ljuba replies, "And then what? She make one telephone call -- 'there is woman here with no papers, she come in here every week' -- I go to jail...I can't drive a car. I can't go to doctor if I get sick. I can't take a bus, go to the airport, talk to a policeman like everyone else. I can't even see my daughter. And every single person -- people like this woman -- they can take my life in one second." Without missing a beat, Lorraine says, "I hope it's not insensitive to say that it kind of reminds me of my own life."

Lorraine is meant to be a figure of fun, a monster of selfishness disguised as an Essex County Auntie Mame, but Eisenberg makes her so awful that engagement with her is all but impossible. "I'm actively charming. You're more natural," she tells Ljuba, but, really, she is unashamedly appalling, the kind of woman you do anything to avoid. It doesn't help that the playwright enmeshes her in some pretty bizarre circumstances. In even an all-white community, would a director cast her -- a character portrayed by Susan Sarandon -- as Bloody Mary in a revival of South Pacific? It must be some troupe, because the production's Lt. Cable is Ronny, a swishy gay guy played by the Filipino actor Nico Santos. Talk about nontraditional casting!

The pièce de résistance of the play's credibility problems is the plot, hatched by Lorraine, to solve Ljuba's citizenship issues by marrying her off to Ronny. Ronny's partner has lost his job at AT&T and, since Ronny prefers amateur theatricals to salaried work, he is willing to marry Ljuba for $15,000 in cash -- all the money she has in the world. This scheme is so implausible in so many ways that one's eyes glaze over trying to list them all. (Quite apart from the fact that one look at Ronny would send any immigration official into fits of disbelieving laughter, how do they intend to explain his boyfriend? Since Lorraine can't do without Ljuba for a minute, where are they going to live?) In any case, the attempt at documenting a Ronny -- Ljuba romance, which involves going on dates in restaurants and taking lots of selfies, leaves Lorraine feeling on the outs, leading to dire consequences for all.

If you can make it through the sour first half of Happy Talk, Eisenberg delivers a couple of unsettling set pieces. In one, Lorraine, reaching out to the nearly silent, ailing Bill, recalls his reaction to her performance as Ellen in Miss Saigon; at last, the façade of pretense falls away, and Lorraine is poignantly revealed in all her hunger for love and approval. This is followed by another monologue in which Lorraine, bustling around the living room, reveals that the entire company of South Pacific has been sneaking out for drinks without her. Her seemingly blasé reaction covers a world of hurt; a few minutes later, another revelation puts the speech in a much more disturbing context. From there, it's a short path to a shocker plot twist that reveals just how far Lorraine will go to stay the center of attention.

By the time Happy Talk completes the transition from acid comedy to psychological thriller, it may very well be too late. The author's contempt for his own creation serves as the biggest stumbling block to one's interest in her fate. I suppose you can view Happy Talk as a parable of the dangers of narcissism -- a toxin that, as you know, has been injected into our politics. And a drama about the exploitative relationship between a wealthy, pampered navel-gazer and the immigrant she exploits certainly couldn't be more up-to-the-minute. But the playwright's way of pinning down his characters, as if in a butterfly collection, makes his play something of an ordeal.

Sarandon, swanning around in Clint Ramos' amusingly flowing ensembles, is alarmingly lifelike as a suburban Bernhardt basking in her own imagined glory. She is especially good when indulging in actorly nonsense: "Bloody Mary is just the most dynamic character in the show," she says, going all Actors Studio on us. "I mean, we're laughing at her -- she's funny, in her way, loping around the stage, surrounded by these strapping GIs -- but, really, she's a broken woman." She's also in sync with Lorraine's knack for making any situation about her; bonding with Ljuba, she says, "This is why I love talking to you. Anything sad in my life is automatically sadder in yours." And in her rare unguarded moments, we see glimpses of the lost soul within. But she can't find anything really engaging in this bizarre navel-gazer; the role wrestles the actress to a standstill. Marin Ireland, an actress more used to dominating a stage, takes a backseat here, sticking to Ljuba's determinedly ingratiating manner; she makes the most of a scene, near the end, when Ljuba convinces Lorraine -- if only for a second -- that, alone with her, she can stop smiling and be herself. She also vividly renders Ljuba's horror on learning just how trapped she really is.

In addition, Tedra Millan is hair-raising as Lorraine's deeply wounded, spiteful daughter, who shows up for a couple of rounds of family infighting; the character is part of the play's architecture -- Eisenberg contrasts Lorraine and Ljuba's offspring problems -- but the character is so offensive, a Noam Chomsky-quoting know-it-all given to lecturing others for their political deficiencies, that one silently cheers when she is expelled. Daniel Oreskes, working with a handful of lines and an infinity of pained expressions, is quietly heartbreaking as Bill. Santos is affable as Ronny, a standard gay caricature who is little more than a playwright's device.

Derek McLane's wickedly observant kitchen/living room set is so blandly awful that one suspects he went door to door through certain Jersey towns, taking notes; look for the posters, on the upstage wall, detailing Lorraine's previous theatrical successes. Jeff Croiter's lighting and the sound design, by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen -- which makes good use of the soundtrack of the 1958 film of South Pacific, with Mitzi Gaynor -- are both solid contributions.

Ultimately, Happy Talk is undone by its dismissive attitude toward its characters; they aren't drawn so much as drawn and quartered. Lorraine is a tempting target, but she's far too easy to warrant the takedown she gets. Everything we need to know about her is made plain within fifteen minutes; the rest is just a waiting game. -- David Barbour

(17 May 2019)

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