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.
Unlike, say, a film such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Clueless has the rare good fortune of clearly representing its historical moment without coming off as a creaky relic. Writer/director Amy Heckerling set her 1995 film in a sort of alternate reality, where the fabulously rich teens of Beverly Hills (already its own parallel universe) reference Kenny G and Christian Slater while dropping hyper-intelligent aperçus disguised as Valley Girl slang. Light on its feet and funny as hell, Clueless was in the ’90s but not of the ’90s.
To anyone who grew up in the Albany area before cable television (or, as I did, in western Massachusetts, served only by Albany stations), the name Erastus Corning was inescapable. For 35 years he was the Democratic mayor of the city, and nightly broadcasts featured him prominently. Sharr White’s marvelous new play The True makes Corning (Michael McKean) a central character in a story of what political parties and machine politics once were and, by contrast, what they have become. It has scope, intelligence and terrific writing.
The actor-playwright Hamish Linklater, born in Great Barrington, an upscale rural community of the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, uses the bucolic area as the setting for The Whirligig, his new play. It’s a region with plenty of past literary associations. Edith Wharton has a crucial scene in Ethan Frome take place in Lenox, where she lived; Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Tanglewood Tales while dwelling in the same town; and Herman Melville turned out Moby-Dick at his home in Pittsfield, the county seat. Much more recently, Lucy Thurber set her Hilltown Plays in the nearby area.
In 2015 the New Group staged Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, a brutal vision of depravity amid the detritus of a wrecked civilization. Now the same company, under the same director, Scott Elliott, is presenting Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House, a more subdued yet insinuating take on a society heading in the same direction. Yet the atmosphere is vastly different.
The musical Sweet Charity has good bloodlines—book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse—yet the 1966 show has never occupied the top tier of musicals, such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof or Gypsy. It has hardly languished in obscurity—there was a decent Broadway revival in 2005—but the New Group production directed by Leigh Silverman is such a persuasive delight that you may come away thinking it is top-tier after all. The production benefits from a terrific performance by Sutton Foster, a two-time Tony winner (and star of TV Land channel’s popular series Younger) in the title role. Foster is better known for big-budget Broadway shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, but it’s a thrill to see her work magic in close quarters.
Steve, the ambitious new play by Mark Gerrard being presented by The New Group, belongs to a particular subset of gay theater that focuses exclusively on a group of homosexuals. The prototype, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), reflected the self-loathing of its closeted characters, leavened with bitchy humor. (Its one ostensibly “straight” character may have been bisexual.) Later examples—Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg and Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! (both 1994); Peter Gill’s Certain Young Men (1999); and Chuck Ranberg’s End of the World Party (2000)—charted the difficulty of living in the age of AIDS and celebrated the nuclear families that gay people assembled to replace marriage or because of rejection by relatives.
Gerrard’s play may be one of the first in the genre in which matrimony is no longer off the table. Apart from that milestone, however, the interests of its characters are mundane: the exhaustion of parenting, the temptations and repercussions of adultery, and alienation by digital communication. The specter of death is present, but in the form of Ashlie Atkinson’s lesbian buddy Carrie. Dying of cancer, she is one of two best friends to Matt McGrath’s Steven, often called Steve.
Steve’s other best bud is Matt (Mario Cantone), wed to Brian (Jerry Dixon). Steve focuses on the two sets of middle-aged partners navigating the new marital landscape. Steven is 47 and married to Stephen (Malcolm Gets); they have an 8-year-old son, Zack. Matt and Brian are childless. Providing complications are two other characters: Steve, a personal trainer who is never seen, and Esteban, a fetching young Argentinean waiter/dancer (Francisco Pryor Garat) whose path continually crosses Steven’s, until the inevitable occurs. If the conceit of the names is meant to signal that all gay men face fundamentally the same issues, the device comes off as excessively precious.
First among equals is McGrath’s character, and his decency is established by the way he helps the ailing Carrie. Even with the most sallow-faced crankiness, McGrath delivers warmth and a wry wit. Recalling a trip to the beach, he says, “I thought we were all at the beach having a great time… Four middle-aged men, and our occasional lady visitor, desperately interested in the slightest recognition that we’re still sexually desirable to the sexually desirable—or even to the almost-sexually desirable—secretly afraid that we’re not, but bravely clinging to the illusion—and each other—like a jaunty, gay Raft of the Medusa.”
But Steven has learned that Stephen is having an affair with Brian. Under Cynthia Nixon’s direction, we see it conducted through ribald sexting, shown on an upstage wall by Olivia Sebesky’s projections. Steven shields Matt from the truth, even after he learns that Brian has invited trainer Steve to move in, and with Matt, become a threesome. Moreover, that arrangement has been made possible by Steven’s taking in Carrie, grown sicker with her cancer and needing a place to stay. Feeling unappreciated and betrayed by Stephen, Steven pursues Esteban. It’s all fundamentally The Seven Year Itch, but multiplied and with twists.
One problem is that one never sees the relationship Stephen and Steven have before Steven’s discovery of incriminating evidence (which he keeps to himself), so the stakes are unclear. And Gets and McGrath have scant chemistry; they’re at odds from the first, and the former has a thankless part, frequently tapping on a cellphone in his hand as the audience reads the projections.
Nixon tries to lighten the tone using Broadway show music during scene changes (and in a prelude of roughly 20 minutes, when the cast stands around an upright and sings). And Gerrard ladles on musical-theater in-jokes relentlessly. Steve laments, “What kind of God would allow the movie version of Mame?” Matt talks about his upcoming three-way: “We’re excited. Excited and scared”—one of many direct references to Stephen Sondheim. Indeed, Steve’s drink of choice is a vodka stinger.
The unsettled tone may reflect the honest bewilderment of where gay life goes from here, but it looks only marginally different from what any relationship faces, except for the issue of sex. In a piquant but fleeting moment, Gerrard suggests that fidelity is an overrated construct. As Brian boasts to the group in the climactic scene: “I came this close to making out with the most beautiful boy in the kitchen who turned out to be the most beautiful girl. And maybe we made out a little anyway.”
The New Group presents Steve at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan through Dec. 27. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with special matinees on Dec. 16 and 23. For tickets, visit www.thenewgroup.org.
In her early film career, Bette Davis set herself apart by being willing to play characters who were unsympathetic; her bad women in Of Human Bondage and Jezebel were her tickets to fame and marked her as different from other studio stars. Jesse Eisenberg is equally unafraid to take on characters who are unpleasant—even loathesome. His performance as the cold and arrogant Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network won him an Oscar nomination. In The New Group’s production of his play The Spoils, he plays Ben, whose social graces are in much worse shape, and whose behavior is often repellent.
The actor's first two plays, Asuncion and The Revisionist, proved he was a promising dramatist. In the latter, he co-starred with Vanessa Redgrave, whose participation suggests she can spot talent, and, indeed, Eisenberg has not only written himself a terrific part in The Spoils, but he performs it with élan.
Eisenberg’s Ben lives in a high-flying modernist apartment (luxuriously designed by Derek McLane) purchased for him by his father; he shares it with a roommate he found online, Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar). Kalyan has come to the United States from Nepal to study business and has written a book; he’s not wealthy and probably couldn’t have come without Ben’s help. Ben, however, disdains capitalism and has altruistically offered Kalyan the apartment rent-free, though Kalyan is reluctant to take charity. When Ben runs into an old childhood acquaintance, Ted, who works on Wall Street and has the ability to help Kalyan, he is persuaded to bring Ted over for an introduction to Kalyan, even as he belittles Kalyan’s ambition to work on Wall Street.
The playwright builds the tension gradually in different ways. Ben badmouths Ted, particularly since Ted is about to marry Sarah Newburg (Erin Darke), a girl Ben has had a crush on since their ages were in single digits. He must, nevertheless, bolster Kalyan in his quest to land a Wall Street job even though Ben, a failed filmmaker, is disaffected and resentful of financial success in others. He talks an artistic game but he lacks inspiration. “I wish the world wasn’t a fucked up string of unfair situations that I seem to be embroiled in,” he declares with self-pitying confidence. He is also physically graceless, pushing his body into others’ spaces and sprawling all over the furniture.
Nayyar’s Kalyan is just a tad wishy-washy, manipulatable by Ben; Kalyan is devoted to his benefactor but not spineless. He is dating Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), a doctor who mistrusts Ben and speaks her mind to his face—another source of tension. Ben nonetheless tries to pull off outrageous gambits—claiming a back injury at one point—although Reshma suspects he’s faking.
Eisenberg has given the rest of the cast solid parts, and director Scott Elliott has chosen his actors wisely. Michael Zegen’s Ted is a likable, decent guy, not threatening or ruthlessly businesslike but with a blandness that wears thin quickly. Sriram’s impassioned Reshma is often at the side of the stage, texting or making cell phone calls, as any doctor might—Elliott cannily attends to the details. Darke is exceptional as Sarah: mature, sensitive, and yet devoted to Ted. In a crucial scene, Ben confesses a cringeworthy, scatological childhood fantasy to her—one that is prepared for earlier when he tells it to Kalyan. (The playwright gets further mileage out of the story in a re-enactment; three times is a charm.)
In the end, though, Eisenberg’s play is less a portrait of a young generation than a character study of someone who hasn’t found his way and denigrates the paths that others have chosen in order to justify his own failure. The questions that roil underneath it are whether success should be judged on ambition or accomplishments, and whether an artist who cannot make money at his art is really worth anything. Ben attempts to concoct a film, based on the story Kalyan has told him, to impress Sarah; when he presents it to her, she sees immediately how bogus he is.
But Eisenberg’s brief coda highlights another crucial question: Can adults be hamstrung by events in their childhood that they barely remember? If so, he intimates, redemption may be possible. Something good that Ben once did may just help him to redefine himself.
Jesse Eisenberg's The Spoils plays through June 28 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St. between 10th and 11th Aves.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and on Sunday, and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, June 24. Tickets may be purchased by calling (212) 279-4200 or visiting ticketcentral.com.