In Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, Happy Talk, we hear that the entire cast of the Jewish Community Center’s production of South Pacific goes out to a bar after rehearsals without including Lorraine. And we understand exactly why: What an awful woman she is. But this play is full of awful people, and despite a great cast and some smart laugh lines, the awfulness grates on your nerves.
I’d hoped for the Kiss Me, Kate effect, where the frame play plays with the famous play (as Kiss Me, Kate plays with The Taming of the Shrew), and although the songs from South Pacific are motivic here, and although there is some obvious if feeble link between Lorraine’s matchmaking and Bloody Mary’s, none of it seems to matter much.
Lorraine (Susan Sarandon — wait for her comical “ballet”) is obsessed with her stage “career” at the Jewish Community Center (why Jewish? Is Eisenberg’s apparent antisemitism worth discussing here? Probably not.). She is absurdly theatrical and narcissistic, seeing herself as a serious artist with lots of theories about acting.
Ljuba (Marin Ireland, lovely and moving) is the saintly, cheerful live-in help in this middle-class suburban household. Her main job is to tend to Lorraine’s bedridden and demanding mother, who lives offstage in a bedroom Lorraine will not enter. We hear horror stories about her mothering when Lorraine was a child: another awful person.
Ljyba is anything but awful. She is desperate for citizenship so she can bring her daughter to the United States from her native Serbia and has saved $15,000 — half the going price of an American husband. Ronny (Nico Santos) is Lorraine’s candidate; he is conspicuously gay and seems sweet if you ignore his mercenary motives. He plays Lt. Cable in the South Pacific production, a fact that flirts with but doesn’t deliver a political point.
Sitting like a lump in a living room chair is Bill (Daniel Oreskes), Lorraine’s silent and sullen husband who suffers from multiple sclerosis — his seizure is terrifyingly realistic — as well as a very predictable depression. He rarely speaks, hiding from family life by reading book after book about the Civil War (get it?).
One night their estranged daughter, Jenny (Tedra Millan), breaks into the house and rants about bourgeois evils, before leaving for Costa Rica. Another awful person in this awful family.
The set (designed by Derek McLane) is tellingly and claustrophobically ugly; ditto the costumes by Clint Ramos, who wisely provides the visual relief of a hot pink dress for Ljuba.
Happy Talk is long on talk, and very short on happy.