Two is company, three’s a crowd, and being alone is unbearable in the New Group’s world premiere of Jesse Eisenberg’s latest comedy-drama, Happy Talk. Unfolding across a series of confrontations where, more often than not, two characters, deep in conversation, are interrupted by the needs of an intrusive third, this play tracks the lives of some strong women and a weak man, all of whom are at the end of their collective rope. And though there is a story line centered around a home aide’s scheme to acquire a green card, the real suspense is in the unrelenting tension that lies just beneath the polite banter of a household that is anything but happy.
“You’re only as good as those around you,” announces Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), arriving home from a rehearsal of South Pacific that is being staged at her Jewish Community Center. The remark is offered as a bit of false modesty. Though cast in the secondary role of Bloody Mary, she fully believes she is, and well should be, the center of attention. But her comment also reflects on the state of her home life, which, were it a musical, might be called South Pathetic. Her husband, Bill (Daniel Oreskes), suffers from depression and a severe case of multiple sclerosis. He spends his days morbidly sipping Scotch and reading about the Civil War.
Lorraine’s bedridden mother is never seen. She exists only as a buzzer that goes off when she needs a diaper change or a cookie. And because Lorraine cannot stand to be in her mother’s presence, there is the Serbian immigrant Ljuba (Marin Ireland), who not only cares for the dying woman, but generates the occasional spark of life for Bill, while simultaneously feeding Lorraine’s insatiable need for company and pipe dreams. Lorraine’s “woke” daughter, Jenny (Tedra Millan), also comes to call, but just long enough to display the venomous hatred she has for dear old mom. She totes so much emotional baggage that she can’t even carry her given name (“I go by Darby because you gave me a shit name that’s stuck in your antiquated binary bubble.”).
It has been a decade since Sarandon has appeared on a New York stage (in a 14-week Broadway run of Ionesco’s Exit the King), but she returns in fine form, negotiating a complex character who is as strong-willed as she is mentally unstable. Showing a natural comfort with the material, she has retained just enough of her Bette Davis turn in the TV miniseries, Feud, to endow Lorraine with the grit of an aspiring actress and the nutty hunger for power that Davis displayed as Baby Jane Hudson. Oreskes, meanwhile, turns in a hauntingly quiet performance with dour grimaces and gloomy body language that occasionally give way to spoken expressions of disgust. He is an object of compassion for Ljuba and Jenny, while Lorraine is ready to wash him right out of her hair.
Ireland is in full wound-up mode, which is fortunate, because she is required to do quite a bit of springing about the stage. Under the always sure hand of director Scott Elliott, she offsets Oreskes’s static presence with her frantic movements, complements Sarandon’s lost wanderings with determined strides, and unloads an open hand across Jenny’s face before ultimately getting slapped down herself. She also moves the erstwhile plot along as she enlists Lorraine’s help in finding a husband (Nico Santos) so that she may become a U.S. resident. Having played a no-nonsense Polish immigrant housekeeper in the 2016 Rattlestick Theater production of Ironbound, her Serbian immigrant caregiver is more a cynically comic creation with a funny accent, capable of drawing both a laugh and a gasp in reducing Lorraine down to five sentences:
“You make everything into something happy. I watch you: is like magic. Someone say something sad or angry and you just pretend like what they say is happy. Is like you don’t even hear them sometimes. Is a gift, in some way.”
That 2019 would be the year of repurposing Oscar Hammerstein seemed unlikely, yet a reimagined version of Oklahoma! is a Broadway hit, and the recently closed Sincerely, Oscar strangely tried to resurrect him as a hologram. Here, the famed librettist provides the play’s title, as borrowed from a South Pacific tune, and Eisenberg uses Bloody Mary and her mystical number, “Bali Ha’i,” as the play’s touchstone. Lorraine interprets the character as “a severely broken woman,” and, by play’s end, is all but transported to that fantasy island.
Happy Talk runs through June 16 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd St.). Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinee performances on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (212) 279-4200 or visit thenewgroup.org.