When we meet Lorraine, the central character of Jesse Eisenberg’s tragi-comedy Happy Talk, she is fresh from holding a community theatre rehearsal hostage by improvising in character. The audience laughs because an egocentric actor is a common stereotype and non-actors like to laugh at the narcissism of showbiz folk. Lorraine provides several such self-centered examples and Eisenberg makes it abundantly clear that she is always forcing herself into the center of attention. The laughs come cheap at Lorraine’s expense, but as the chuckles pare away her performative peel, what’s left is the bitter pith of someone trying to avoid being alone. There’s a reason I used the word hostage before: a darkness is revealed in Lorraine and it isn’t so funny.
Susan Sarandon is curiously flat with a character that should be anything but. Everything Lorraine does is a performance. She’s over-compensating and it should be larger than life. When Ljuba (a Serbian immigrant working as her mother’s home aide) tells her she can stop smiling – meaning drop the façade – there isn’t much change in Sarandon’s demeanor. There’s very little acknowledgement that Ljuba has called her out with such incisive clarity. Eisenberg’s script is laden with jokes, but Sarandon delivers the text in the same purposeless cadence as if reciting uninteresting facts. Some of these jokes land, mostly because Eisenberg brings the neurotic verbal markers that define his acting to his playwrighting, but they’re through no help of Sarandon’s. Elsewhere, an excellent actor, Lorraine is foreign to her – Sarandon doesn’t find the character in her body or her voice. There’s a disconnect between the play and the actor that she never quite bridges.
The play focuses on Lorraine’s attempt to find Ljuba a Green Card husband to keep her in America. Ljuba has saved a substantial sum of money in order to pay said husband and Lorraine uses this as a dowry of sorts to bribe her gay community theatre co-star, Ronny, into agreeing to the marriage. As Ronny and Ljuba spend more time together to document their fictitious relationship, Lorraine feels pushed aside by Ljuba, her employee, but also her closest friend. Marin Ireland brings a sunny goofiness to Ljuba, masking the character’s pain with an unwavering cheerfulness. Ireland shows the stakes that drive Ljuba to hand over her life savings to an American man who won’t ever love her – at least romantically – but will keep her in the country and, eventually, give her the opportunity to bring her daughter over from Serbia. Ljuba’s false front is a coping mechanism; she is convincing herself that everything’s all right as much as she is trying to convince everyone else. Eisenberg has set up this parallel between Lorraine and Ljuba, which culminates in the moment where Ljuba tells Lorraine to let her guard down, but with Ireland finding limitless facets to play and Sarandon just coasting by, the full impact of this moment isn’t felt.
That’s also director Scott Elliott’s fault. He stages this climactic confrontation in the farthest upstage corner with Sarandon blocked by both Ireland’s body and a kitchen island. How can the audience access this crack of intimacy, whether apparent in Sarandon’s performance or not, when there are such significant obstacles thwarting us from reaching her? In the final scene of the play, when Lorraine has gone full-tilt away from reality, Sarandon’s flatness is suddenly chilling; there’s something vacant and dreamlike in her eyes, reminiscent of her performance as Bette Davis as Baby Jane in the miniseries Feud. There’s even an extended solo dance sequence like Davis’ flouncing on the beach at the end of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. But Elliott’s direction doesn’t lean into this shift into new psychological territory; he keeps everything playing as we’ve seen it all along. The production doesn’t capitalize on the weirdness or the brutality of Lorraine’s actions, or on the fear that has driven her to it.
Lorraine’s fear of loneliness becomes most palpable – and the play comes alive – in an electric scene with her daughter, Jenny, played by Tedra Millan. Jenny comes back to the house to say goodbye to her father and invalid grandmother before moving to a foreign country, but she is discovered by Ljuba (whom she has never met) and Lorraine hears the commotion. Eisenberg never reveals what makes Jenny despise her mother so much, but the overall opinion Jenny has of Lorraine shows a side of her we haven’t seen. This ever-smiling community theatre star has done something irreparable to her daughter.
Eisenberg and Millan keep the playing field level between the mother and daughter. They depict Jenny as abrasive, a quintessential millennial concerned with environmental science and anarchic politics. As such, her anger is hard to register as genuine and warranted or as merely the angst of young adulthood. Jenny has broken out of the suburban New Jersey life in which her mother thrives and she is filled with disgust for Lorraine’s microwaved food and her race-inappropriate casting as Bloody Mary in South Pacific. She keeps secrets from her mother, shutting her out of her most important life events, to further the distance between her past and her present. Millan’s performance is filled with rage covering the devastated tatters of her maternal relationship. Maybe she and her mother aren’t so different after all.
Eisenberg’s play focuses on these women and the ways their lives attract and reject each other. There are two men as well, but their roles are mostly inconsequential. Jenny is awful to Lorraine and Lorraine is awful to Ljuba and her offstage mother. After a while, the play tips into catfight territory; these women go at each other excessively in the latter half of the play and it might have been welcome to see one positive female-female relationship. Instead, Happy Talk is an ironic moniker – this talk is anything but happy. It’s fear talk, it’s isolation talk, it’s hopeless talk. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t bring these emotions fully to the surface. It keeps them repressed under Lorraine’s smile.