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Off-Broadway Review—Susan Sarandon in Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk”

Happy Talk
Written by Jesse Eisenberg; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through June 16, 2019

Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland and Tedra Millan in Happy Talk (photo: Monique Carboni)
Susan Sarandon’s first New York stage appearance in a decade (when she was on Broadway in Ionesco’s Exit the King) is the obvious reason to see Happy Talk. In Jesse Eisenberg’s slight comic drama, Sarandon plays Lorraine, a narcissistic actress—is that redundant?—who tries to ignore life’s awfulness from intruding on her well-being in her own home: her (unseen) elderly mother is in a sick bed and her husband Bill, suffering from M.S., often sits in a state of near-catatonia in the living room.
Helping out is Ljuba, an illegal Serbian immigrant who takes care of everyone, even Lorraine, who needs to be needy while acting if she’s doing the caretaking. When Ljuba says she’s been saving money for years to pay for a green-card marriage, which would make her legal and let her bring her teenage daughter over from Serbia, what little plot there is kicks in as Lorraine decides to play matchmaker for Ljuba with Ronny, an actor in her local JCC troupe rehearsing a production of South Pacific (the play’s title comes from one of that show’s songs). No matter that Ronny is gay and unavailable: Lorraine thinks he’s perfect for the part, and various mishaps accrue.
The women’s codependent relationship, initially shown as amusingly off-kilter, becomes malevolent as Lorraine lords it over Ljuba until, by the end, the younger woman is spent, both financially and emotionally. But Eisenberg never makes this relationship plausible; instead, Lorraine’s shenanigans are a playwright’s contrivance, a lazy shortcut instead of allowing things to grow organically from the characters themselves. 
Eisenberg’s extremely messy script does have two juicy roles: one obvious, the other not. Sarandon unsurprisingly delves into Lorraine with glee, viscerally playing up her theatricality and sunny exterior hiding inner turmoil. That Ljuba is no match for Lorraine is the combined fault of writer and actress: Eisenberg smothers her with clichéd writing and the usually dependable Marin Ireland plays her with a curious sing-song voice and risible Balkan accent that sound like Gilda Radner’s SNL characters Roseanne Roseannadanna and Lisa Loopner. 
The other good role is Jenny, Lorraine and Bill’s estranged adult daughter, who arrives late one night and—thanks to a terrific Tedra Millan—foulmouthedly steals the show. But in Eisenberg’s shaky hands, Jenny’s appearance merely underlines what we already know: Lorraine is nastily (even dangerously) self-centered. Millan gives Jenny a dimension that overshadows everyone else, save for Lorraine, and when she exits, interest in the rest of Happy Talk drops precipitously, despite director Scott Elliott’s usual savvy effort.
Our last image is of Lorraine sitting alone, smirk on her face: Sarandon slyly looks at the audience and waves, an acknowledgement of complicity not in the script. Would that Elliott had more such intrusions up his sleeve to give more depth to a desperately creaky vehicle.
Happy Talk
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

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