Off-Broadway Theater Review: HAPPY TALK (The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on May 16, 2019

in Theater-New York


In Jesse Eisenberg’s very funny and poignant one-act Happy Talk the excellent Susan Sarandon plays Lorraine, an amateur actress whose rosy, self-serving delusions lead to tragic consequences. We first meet Lorraine when she arrives late to her suburban home from rehearsal; she’s playing the part of Bloody Mary in a production of the musical South Pacific at the local Jewish community center. Her tardiness, she admits as she microwaves leftovers for dinner, is her own fault: “I was improvising during my introduction scene in Act One, which everybody just loves! I don’t even know how I do it. It’s like I leave my body and enter some kind of fantasy!”

She continues talking nonstop in that vein as Bill (Daniel Oreskes), her ailing husband, sits nearly motionless in an armchair nursing a whiskey and reading a book about the Civil War. “Right before every man dies, they read a book about The Civil War,” she comments, seemingly resentful that he is not engaging with her. “I pay for everything in this house,” is his response, which doesn’t assuage her disdain. It’s as if Bill, old and sick and dull, doesn’t fit into the exciting, vibrant, creative world that she sees herself living in. And when he’s seized by excruciating pain from a spasm, she can’t bear to watch and walks off.

Lorraine also can’t stand going into her bedridden mother’s room, referring to her as “the beast.” When mom’s live-in caretaker Ljuba (a delightful Marin Ireland) objects, she tells her: “My mother spent her life torturing me.” This becomes ironic in retrospect when Lorraine’s estranged daughter Jenny (Tedra Millan) shows up unexpectedly. Cantankerous, arrogant, and supremely confident that she knows better, Jenny, we guess, is the 2.0 version of her mom, and their relationship offers a useful glimpse into what Lorraine’s interactions with her mother probably looked like years ago.

Ljuba is the only person in the house that Lorraine enjoys being with; she fantasizes that it will be just the two of them living together one day, when the others — Bill and her mother — are, inevitably, gone. Ljuba is Lorraine’s foil. An illegal immigrant from Serbia, she’s kindhearted and loving, generous, hard-working, and childlike. Remarkably, on top of sending money to her daughter in Serbia, Ljuba has managed to scrimp and save $15,000, which she keeps under her mattress. Her plan is to pay that money to a U.S. citizen to fake-marry her so that she can become a permanent resident and bring her daughter from Serbia to the U.S. Upon learning of Ljuba’s plan Lorraine gets very excited, and assuming the role of matchmaker introduces her to Ronny (Nico Santos), a gay man from her acting troupe, who agrees to the deal.

With all her pretensions and transparent ego, Lorraine is a character easy to make fun of. But Mr. Eisenberg’s truthful writing and Scott Elliott’s balanced direction, not to mention Ms. Sarandon’s grounded performance, make her sympathetic. We see ourselves in her. Her vanity, her arrogance, her willful ignorance are symptoms of something deeper and universal. We all, both individually and as a society, are at times tempted to run away from ugly reality into the arms of a beautiful fantasy, often without appreciating the costs of such a bargain. Happy Talk explores this dynamic with wit and wisdom, making for a worthwhile experience that lingers.

photos by Monique Carboni

Happy Talk
The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd St
ends on June 16, 2019
for tickets, call 212.279.4200 or visit The New Group

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