Review of The New Group's Happy Talk, starring Susan Sarandon & Marin Ireland, at Pershing Square Signature Center

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    May 16, 2019
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    Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg plays tricks with our perception - and it takes a long, long time to get where it is going. A really long time.

    This is the story of the Sad Family. The Sad Family lives a Sad Life in a Sad Suburb. Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) is the matriarch of this collection. One could say she is the center, but in reality she is simply the noisiest. One-Two-Three-Eyes-On-MEEEE would be her motto if she focused long enough to have one. But she prefers not to focus, because that would mean looking at her life. Her Sad Life.

    Her husband Bill (Daniel Oreskes) has MS; her mother Ruthie (never seen) is bed-ridden; her daughter Jenny (Tedra Millan) is estranged and glad to be so. The only ray of hope in her life is the Serbian aid who takes care of Ruthie and occasionally Bill. Ljuba (pronounced Luba) as played by Marin Ireland is a peripatetic woman whose mind chuffs along as fast as her body does - and that is pretty fast. The other happy element in Lorraine's life is the local community theatre, where she has reigned as the leading lady/character actor for many a year. When we meet her she is deep in rehearsal for South Pacific in which she is playing Bloody Mary.

    Lorraine proceeds blindly through her life. The food in the house is all microwaved and eaten as if it were slop in a prison. There is no taste - it is only a means of survival. She watches time passing, watches her husband and her mother fading away in front of her. She clings to Ljuba and jokes about how they will pass the time when it is just the two of them. The problem for that happily-ever-after scenario is that Ljuba is illegal - surprise - and she is afraid of being found out and sent back to Serbia where her daughter is living. This is an outcome devoutly to be un-wished.

    Lorraine - the knower of all things, jumps in to help - mostly to save her from her own loneliness, but still... Ljuba is grateful but pulled in a million directions. How will the situation resolve itself? What about her patient(s)? What about her daughter? What about that woman at the bakery who is suspicious? Eisenberg sets us on a course that is like an amusement park ride. We get tossed thither and yon, all the while noticing that nothing is really happening. There is great commotion and emoting, but it is not until the play trickles to a conclusion that the final shoe drops.

    The performances are all quite fine. Some are more rounded than others, but this is due to the writing that often feels tentative. No one person dominates the story. No one person pulls it forward. Everyone just knocks about together like a gang of teenagers.

    The result is that this play travels along its sad path until it reaches the climax, where a touch of dastardly is thrown in and all the nails are firmly planted in the coffin. Nothing is really resolved. The play just ends. Lights come up, and we all leave the Pershing Square Signature Center wondering what we just watched.

    (Photo by Monique Carboni)

    "Ms. Sarandon might not be ideally cast in the role of the flamboyantly dotty Lorraine in Happy Talk, Jesse Eisenberg’s latest comedy of queasiness, which opened on Thursday at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The exuberant, show-tune-spouting queen of a suburban community theater group, Lorraine tries to turn her every moment, onstage and off, into a delirious showstopper. Or that’s how she’s described, anyway. But as embodied by Ms. Sarandon in this wobbly New Group production — directed by Scott Elliott and also starring the invaluable Marin Ireland — Lorraine always seems a bit abstracted, as if she had other, darker things on her mind than the glories of musical comedy. So, to put it mildly, does Happy Talk."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "It’s easy to see why Susan Sarandon returned to the New York stage for the first time in a decade for Happy Talk, the uneven new dramedy that opened Thursday in a New Group production at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center. Jesse Eisenberg has crafted an old-fashioned star vehicle that centers on Sarandon’s Lorraine, a suburban New Jersey diva with delusions of grandeur about her long list of community-theater credits and a bitchy wit that cuts everyone around her down to size."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "If Jesse Eisenberg were older and female, he'd be perfect casting for the lead role in his new play, his fourth to be produced in New York. The actor has long specialized in neurotic, self-absorbed intensity, traits that Lorraine, the housewife and amateur actress at the center of Happy Talk, has in spades. A world premiere staged by Off-Broadway's The New Group (where Eisenberg's The Spoils debuted in 2015), this dark comedy starring Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland proves alternately amusing and discomfiting, which, come to think of it, could be said of many of Eisenberg's performances as well."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter