There’s a lot of actual happy talk in Jesse Eisenberg’s latest play; some grandstanding, some naïve, some desperate, some certifiable. What you will not hear is the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, though recordings of five others from South Pacific signify our heroine’s role as Bloody Mary in a local Jewish Community Center production of the show. I’ll give you a moment to imagine urbane Susan Sarandon (Lorraine) in that role.
Passive-aggressive diva Lorraine is married to Bill (Daniel Oreskes), who has periodic physical fits, barely looks up from his reading to utter something monosyllabic, and never gets out of his chair. She nonetheless chatters to/at him, including periodic questions and expressions of love we don’t know whether to trust. Bill is looked after by live-in attendant, Ljuba (Marin Ireland), an undocumented Serbian whose main responsibility is Lorraine’s “husk of a mother” (from whom we only hear a call-buzz).
Lorraine and Ljuba have the peculiarly close relationship. Were the character not embodied by Sarandon, would we be so aware of camaraderie’s dark side? Is waiting for the axe to fall a symptom of casting?
Chipper, even-tempered Ljuba has been stashing money away to pay an American to marry her for papers. When her choice falls through, Lorraine volunteers to find a willing man. “I’m like Yenta the matchmaker, a role I could’ve devoured if I weren’t too pretty…I guess this is what it feels like to truly help someone in need…”
She comes up with fellow thespian Ronny (Nico Santos) who, despite being Pilippino, has been given the role of Lieutenant Cable in the upcoming musical?! As unlikely as this is, it’s nowhere near as unbelievable as assuming he’ll pass for straight before government officials during marriage certification process. Nonetheless, with Lorraine at the helm of simplified preparation, Ronny and Ljuba begin to “date,” careful to snap photos everywhere. They get along famously.
Before the genuinely surprise ending, this play’s best part, we also meet estranged daughter, Jenny (Tedra Millan), who ostensibly comes to see her grandmother before she moves to another country. (She spends thirty seconds with the old woman.) Jenny is viciously angry, so one-note-over-the-top the character evokes only irritation.
Casting and Direction make it difficult to fully glean Jesse Eisenberg’s intentions. Music feels like filler. Jenny seems stuck in.
The engaging Susan Sarandon might’ve chosen a better vehicle for her return to theater. Usually convincing, she’s too apparently savvy to make Lorraine’s self-delusions credible, too tightly wound to convince us of lighter moments. (Ballet around the living room falls flat.) Parentheses with Oreskes are aptly unnerving, underlying darkness lands true.
Marin Ireland’s Ljuba is demonstrative to the extreme. Gratitude and hope conceivably fuels this, character is consistent. Ireland gains theatrical ground as the play proceeds. Oddly (in light of expertise demonstrated elsewhere) her accent never lands comfortably.
Director Scott Elliott can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether this is a dark comedy or a psychological thriller.
Derek McLane’s Set is bland and symmetrical. Except for a few theater posters on the stairs, it might be anyone’s home.
Costumes for the women by Clint Ramos are unnecessarily ugly. Only Ljuba occasionally looks at all well.
Photos by Monique Carboni
Opening: Marin Ireland (Ljuba)And Susan Sarandon (Lorraine)
The New Group presents
Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Scott Elliott
Through June 16, 2019
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street