Right now is a strange time for theater: playwright Tracy Letts in acting in “All My Sons” and actor Jesse Eisenberg has a play, “Happy Talk” at the Signature Center, produced by the New Group. While Letts is quite the actor, Eisenberg has still not proven himself as a playwright. Most likely you will leave “Happy Talk” with a feeling of strangeness and conflicted emotions; it all feels a bit off and out of place.
“Happy Talk” tells the story of Lorraine, an older white woman starring as Bloody Mary in a Jewish Community Center’s production of “South Pacific.” She has a sickly husband and a bedridden mother, both of whom she does not take care of; instead, she has Ljuba, an undocumented Serbian nurse. Things take a turn for the dramatic when Ljuba declares she is looking for a greencard marriage and Lorraine decides to play matchmaker.
I am purposefully burying the lede here: Lorraine is played by Susan Sarandon, who has about as messy politics as her character. Lorraine is privileged, hypocritical, over-dramatic, egotistical, manipulative, and self-righteous. It is hard to know if this was a bit of stunt casting for shock value. Even if it was, Sarandon excels playing this deeply problematic character. Opposite her as Ljuba is Marin Ireland, who never fails to be one of the best and most underappreciated actresses in the business. Here she has ceaseless transforms, donning a Serbian accent flawlessly. Ireland gives a complex, layered performance: underneath Ljuba’s helpful and cheery facade is a fragile, yearning, fragile woman who is in a precarious legal state.
Both women perpetually smile, trying to make things “lighthearted always.” For the first half of the play, this works quite well. Eisenberg’s dialogue is often hilarious, and Lorraine is constantly unaware of how ridiculous she is, both in how over the top she is about her community theater production and how clueless she in the ironies of her politics, particularly her insensitivity to Ljuba’s plight — she is one of those people that will hear a tragic story and say “that reminds me of something in my life.” The two men in the play, the nearly silent and always brooding husband (Daniel Oreskes) and the sassy gay fake husband-to-be for Ljuba (Nico Santos) both round out the comedy of the first half and provide funny sparring partners for the two women.
However, it is in the second half that everything really falls apart — both in the plot and in the quality of the writing. Lorraine’s daughter, Darby (Tedra Millan), makes a cameo, and for some unexplainable reason Eisenberg uses her as a tool to completely mock millennials and progressive politics. Darby is reduced to a comedic string of buzzwords — organic, self-sustaining, vegan, non-patriarchal, against the gender binary, non-militant, anti-establishment— all of which give Lorraine a reason to roll her eyes. The two are in a feud, but the audience is clearly supposed to side with Lorraine, despite the fact that the first half of the play was spent proving how unsympathetic Lorraine is.
To make matters worse, in the final of four scenes, there are several dramatic reveals that completely ruin the quality of the first half’s comedy and undermine the subtle critique of Lorraine. “Happy Talk” certainly had potential, and it began well, but overall it does not meet expectations and comes off as poorly written and unresolved. It has all the making of a modern day, Trump-era “Glass Menagerie”: a manipulative mother, an absent husband, an angry child, a fragile woman, and her gentleman caller. Yet here it all does not add up to a cohesive whole, it is all just too muddled to be successful. “Happy Talk” attempts a political message, but sadly it falls short and instead it makes a mess and leaves the audience feeling as hopeless as ever.