In Jesse Eisenberg’s slow-boiling, painful new comedy, Susan Sarandon plays Lorrain – a narcissistic, breezily cruel actress who twists reality to suit her emotional whims. And here we must pause and promise not to revisit the film star’s toxic, naïve stance on Trump vs. Hillary. Okay? Moving on! Lorrain lives in suburban New Jersey (tacky-cozy interior by Derek McLane) with her depressed, multiple-sclerosis-afflicted husband Bill (Daniel Oreskes) and her dying, bedridden mother. The mother is cared for by a home-health aide from Serbia named Ljuba (Marin Ireland), a single mom who hopes to bring her troubled teenage daughter to the United States. Ljuba is a live-in worker, and Lorrain dotes on her like a child – even if she leaves changing adult diapers to the chipper, often frazzled immigrant. When Ljuba confides in her employer that she wants to marry an American for citizenship, and has saved $15,000 that she keeps in her mattress, a sour little plot is set in motion.
Lorrain, a community-theater eminence who adorns the walls with posters from revivals of Pippin, The Pajama Game and the like, is in rehearsals for South Pacific. Her role is the wheedling, profit-minded Bloody Mary, who trades with U.S. sailors stationed in the Pacific Islands during World War II. In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Mary sets her teenage daughter up with the lovelorn Lieutenant Cable, hoping he might marry her and offer a better life in the States. Cable, passion cooled by racial prejudice, won’t take the girl home as his wife. Eisenberg’s neat intertextual trick is Lorrain mimicking Mary by playing matchmaker for pseudo-child Ljuba and the actor who plays Cable in the production, Ronny (Nico Santos). The fact that Ronny is Asian and gay gives the situation an ironic kick. Anyway, Ljuba is marrying for the green card, not love. And Ronny’s doing it for the money. What’s in it for Lorrain?
The story turns on that question. As we get to know Lorrain, our laughter at her drama-queen flouncing curdles into dismay, seeing the dismal wreckage of her life. Bill, stubbornly mute for long stretches (Oreskes makes stony silence most eloquent) has all but given up on his wife, who dutifully reheats his dinner in the microwave and doles out pills, but pointedly ignores his misery. Their estranged, radical-left daughter Jenny (a seething Tedra Millan) sneaks in late one night to spew venom at Lorrain and casually mention that she got married and is moving to the Central American rainforest. What Jenny recalls of Lorraine’s mother Ruth (offstage, unseen) suggests that grandma was a bitter, abusive lady. This multi-generational history of emotional violence and maternal neglect casts Lorrain’s hogging the spotlight and stage-managing her life in sharp relief. When Ljuba and Ronny pose for staged photos to create a fake romantic history, the dime-store diva must pathetically force herself into the frame.
This is not a novel subject – show folk who are privately miserable and use stage illusions to mask life’s ugly realities. But Eisenberg marries his sardonic portrait to an immigrant’s story to give it an extra layer of suspense and relevance. Ireland, incapable of turning in a weak or vague performance, imbues Ljuba with practical, hard-headed decency, a woman who does the dirty work and smiles, who maintains a relentlessly positive front because her sanity and livelihood depend on it. Kinetic intensity matched with total emotional transparency is Ireland’s stock-in-trade. In Happy Talk’s most powerful moment, after Lorrain has thrown her hateful daughter out of the house for sneeringly calling her a “shitty wife,” she maniacally tries to pretend that everything’s normal. Ireland’s Ljuba grasps her boss by the hands, stares into her soul and commands, in stilted English, “You stop always smiling with me. And I stop always smiling with you. Okay?” It’s a breathtaking offer of radical honesty and empathy, and Ireland nails it.
Lorrain’s arc is what drives the play to its dour conclusion, and it’s here where Eisenberg’s contrived plotting and Sarandon’s amusing but one-note performance let us down. Not to give too much away, but when it seems that Ljuba might leave, and Bill’s health declines, and Jenny opens up old wounds, Lorrain can take no more. Either she will face reality or retreat into lies and fantasies. Sarandon, charismatic and poised up to this point, doesn’t find the darkness needed to convey the grotesque shock – earned or not – the ending demands.
Scott Elliott’s production for The New Group deftly layers well-crafted cringe comedy with moments of pathos. Santos keeps it sweet and campy, even as he grasps the depth of Lorrain’s delusions, his frisky vibe balanced by Oreskes’ morbid despair. At one hour and 45 minutes, the play could lose 15 minutes (as practically everything could), and as noted, Sarandon can’t stick the landing. But Eisenberg (The Revisionist, The Spoils) continues his impressive run of plays that flay the conscience of self-obsessed characters whose good intentions inevitably cause greater harm. The more they talk, the less happy they are.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.