The only good thing to be said about Jesse Eisenberg’s dismal new play Happy Talk is that, at an hour and forty-five intermissionless minutes, it’s a real value: It’s two bad plays for the price of one. For three acts, we’re stuck in a spiritless comedy with aspirations toward biting social commentary, plus the requisite maudlin attempts at meaningful human connection. Then, in Act Four, we’re treated to a sudden genre bomb, a gotcha coda that takes the play off-roading into Stephen King territory. It’s as if Eisenberg realized that his story of self-involvement and loneliness in the New Jersey suburbs wasn’t headed much of anywhere, so he decided to turn it into Misery. Not really necessary — it’s been misery to watch all along.
The New Group consistently builds their productions around celebrity appeal, and here director (of both show and company) Scott Elliott has Eisenberg behind the scenes and Susan Sarandon chewing the scenery. Or attempting to chew it: Sarandon plays a well-off New Jersey housewife named Lorraine who powers through life on the strength of a positivity that borders on delirium, plus the dizzying ego highs she gets from performing in provincial theater. She’s currently playing Bloody Mary in a production of South Pacific at the Jewish Community Center, where she reckons herself a kind of local Sarah Bernhardt. “I was improvising during my introduction scene in Act One, which everybody just loves!” she chatters to her husband Bill (Daniel Oreskes) at the start of the play. “I don’t even know how I do it. It’s like I leave my body and enter some kind of fantasy! … Of course, it helps to be surrounded by such a wonderful ensemble.” Lorraine thrives on attention and affirmative clichés. “You make everything into something happy,” says Ljuba (Marin Ireland), the undocumented Serbian immigrant who takes care of Lorraine’s bedridden, near-vegetative mother. Ljuba wants to become a citizen and bring her daughter to the U.S., and Happy Talk — which takes its title from the cringiest song in South Pacific — follows Lorraine’s self-dramatizing efforts to engineer a green-card marriage between her decent, trusting employee and Ronny, a very not heterosexual member of her show’s cast (Crazy Rich Asians’ Nico Santos).
There’s something superior and even cruel about the play’s sense of humor, which mostly derives from Lorraine’s unabated awfulness. She’s a narcissistic, delusional, grandiose, thin-skinned motormouth, a self-professed “artist” with nothing resembling actual sensitivity inside her. Her nonstop happy talk is full of casual racism (“What’s great about having Ronny in the cast is that he’s able to give us insight into the exotic Asian experience!”) and privileged oblivion (“Food shows up on my table by the grace of God for all I know, and I eat it”). She’s so unbearable that it’s obvious that Eisenberg will, eventually, give us a twist that’s supposed to humanize her: It arrives in Act Three in the shape of Lorraine and Bill’s estranged daughter, Darby, née Jennifer (Tedra Millan). Lorraine, who keeps anything negative buried, systematically avoids the fact that her daughter hates her, that she herself hates her own dying mother, and that her husband is in daily horrible pain from MS. But Darby’s arrival digs up all the ugly dirt. She is, unsurprisingly, also awful — as selfish as her mother, but the self-righteous millennial edition. Eisenberg checks all the boxes as Darby rants about everything from the gender binary and the electrical grid to “bullshit consumerist culture” and the U.S.’s “pigheaded, jingoistic foreign policy.” She’s a smug, bratty terror, and Lorraine-as-Sarandon gets applause when she finally throws Darby out.
And so what? What are we getting from this plodding display of different breeds of rampant egotism? What are we gaining by giving a room full of bougie audience members the chance to applaud when the worst kind of caricature of a young social-justice warrior is given the boot? Do people like Darby exist? Of course they do — but they’re also very low-hanging theatrical fruit, and it’s an icky kind of catharsis to let ourselves revel in their overthrow. It feels easy and junk-food-y, a satire of empty calories.
Apart from the hopeful Ljuba — and perhaps Bill, though he doesn’t get much active stage time — Eisenberg seems content to stand outside the characters he writes, pointing out all the ways in which they’re vapid and obnoxious. Though the play tells us the actual state of Lorraine’s soul through her own assessment of Bloody Mary, the role she’s playing — “She’s a severely broken woman” — it never gives us a reason to care about her brokenness. For Happy Talk to work, we should, on some level, despite all her glaring flaws, feel emotionally complicit with Lorraine. At the very least, we should feel some pity for her. But Eisenberg is so glib and Sarandon so unconnected that we feel nothing. It’s actively uncomfortable watching Sarandon, whose performance flickers in and out, giving the lie to a character who prides herself on being fully alive when she’s up on a stage. She’s just not consistently present, and the superficial work is doubly apparent next to Ireland, a ferocious performer here giving her standard 120 percent in a role that ultimately feels exhausting, if not near abusive.
The comedy of Happy Talk is so sour and the drama so ham-fisted and misdirected that I found myself weirdly grateful for Oreskes’s Bill, a character who spends the play grimacing in an armchair — silent, frustrated, and in increasing pain. Thank you, Bill: I feel represented.
Happy Talk is at the Signature Centre through June 16.