WHAT "Happy Talk"
WHEN | WHERE Through June 16, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO From $75; 212-279-4200, thenewgroup.org
BOTTOM LINE Good performances, but Jesse Eisenberg's play takes us exactly nowhere.
There’s very little happy talk — not even much pleasant talk — in Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, which, for dubious reasons, he calls "Happy Talk."
Getting its world premiere in a New Group production at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the perplexing piece by the actor best known for playing Mark Zuckerberg in the 2010 film "The Social Network" meanders for nearly two, intermissionless hours without really going anywhere.
When this work was first announced, the title was "Yea, Sister!" No clue where that came from, but the current title references a song in "South Pacific" (explanations to come).
If the playwright goes back to the drawing board on this piece, which he should if he envisions a future for it, he might consider a name change. While not especially original, "All About Lorraine” would at least be accurate, since the story focuses on a painfully narcissistic New Jersey housewife (Susan Sarandon, doing a fine job with weak material) inexorably stuck in an extended sandwich situation involving a noncommunicative husband (Daniel Oreskes) with multiple sclerosis, a bitter daughter (Tedra Millan) to whom she hasn’t spoken for months and a bedridden mother who we never see.
In need of an alternate reality, Lorraine spends most of her time rehearsing for a community theater production of "South Pacific" (thus explaining that problematic title) playing Bloody Mary, a character who does in fact have a song called "Happy Talk." We never hear it, though, instead getting a brief bit of "Bali Ha'i," the haunting ballad she talk-sings to her husband in the play's only poignant moment.
Director Scott Elliott does what he can to wring some dramatic tension out of the piece, finding it mostly in Ljuba (Marin Ireland, a terrific fireball of nervous energy ), the live-in Serbian nurse who cares for the ailing family members. It gets even murkier when Lorraine decides to arrange a marriage so Ljuba isn’t deported, though all she can come up with in the way of husband material is the gay guy playing Lt. Cable in her show (Nico Santos, his "Crazy Rich Asians" character very much intact). More about that would be a spoiler, but be assured the ending isn't any happier than the talk.
Eisenberg seems to want to explore Lorraine's obsessive need to be the center of attention, something that’s clearly driven away her daughter, who recently married without informing her parents. But as bad as the author wants us to feel for these characters, it’s almost impossible to care much about what happens to any of them.