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Happy Talk

Marin Ireland and Susan Sarandon                    photos by Monique Carboni

Happy Talk

               by Arney Rosenblat

Happy Talk starring Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland is a play where positivity goes seriously amuck

Jesse Eisenberg's new play being presented by The New Group at the Signature Center described as "hysterical and devastating" is so dark that it bears a closer resemblance to Steven King than to Neil Simon.  It features Susan Sarandon, at her prime,  as Lorraine, a self-proclaimed "eccentric" and "artist" of her community theater group in suburban New Jersey where she is currently in rehearsals to play Bloody Mary in their production of South Pacific, a character whose show stopper Rogers and Hammerstein's song  "Happy Talk," is an apt metaphor for Lorraine's carefully crafted life persona

Initially, Lorraine, who comports herself as if she were acting  the lead role in a play of her life while spewing an endless stream of "happy talk" seems harmless enough.  In fact her happy talk appears to be  a means of convincing herself as well as those around her that all is well despite the fact that her husband (a compellingly bitter Daniel Oreskes), is significantly disabled by progressing multiple sclerosis, her long abusive mother Ruthie (unseen yet represented by a disruptive off stage ringing call button) is now dying and has dementia, and her estranged daughter Jenny ( a biting Tedra Millan) detests her (though she has the same destructive traits, just packaged differently)

A calming counter-balance for Lorraine to all this negativity is Ljuba played with charm, poignancy and humor by Marin Ireland.  Ljuba is an undocumented Serbian refugee hired to look after Lorraine's mother, a role which has evolved into her becoming Lorraine's dogsbody.and ego-soothing mirror.  Though apparently cheerful on the surface, Ljuba is well aware that her illegal status makes her highly vulnerable.  "I can't drive a car...go to (a) doctor if I get sick. I can't take a bus, go to the airport, talk to a policeman,"  because if some malicious person knows she doesn't have a Green Card, they can "make one telephone call...and take my life in one second."  This makes Lorraine and Ljuba an unsettling pair of co-dependents. Lorraine provides Ljuba refuge which Ljuba repays by serving as Lorraine's minion.  It also sets the stage for a full-blown, heart-breaking, head-on collision between the two.



Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland and Tedra Millan

Trying to dig herself out of her uneasy limbo status, Ljuba approaches Lorraine with a request for her assistance in helping to arrange a green-card marriage, for which Ljuba has saved $15,000, hidden in her mattress, to pay a prospective groom for his cooperation.   

The kindly Ljuba does hold a genuine admiration for Lorraine remarking "You make everything into something happy." and that whenever "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."   On the other hand, why Lorraine loves talking to Ljuba is that "Anything sad in my life is automatically sadder in yours."

At first Lorraine basks in her new role of Lady Bountiful.  She taps Ronny (a funny, warm-hearted Nico Santos of Crazy Rich Asians fame) who, like Lorraine's Bloody Mary in South Pacific, is a cast-against-type Lieutenant Cable, as the prospective groom-to-be.  Ronny is gay and in need of funds because his life partner is currently unemployed.  He also breaks into song or musical-comedy lyrics patter given the slightest provocation, drawing Lorraine into his joyous diversions (the creative decision of making Ronny so stereotypically gay, seems a somewhat odd choice, if the purpose is to deceive immigration authorities into believing his marriage to Ljuba is legitimate)  

The plan for Ljuba to obtain a Green Card through an arranged marriage starts to derail when Lorraine sees the pair actually becoming close friends paying less attention to her and more to each other.  Lorraine's conflicted relationships with herself, her family and the world at large are further exacerbated by the appearance of her belligerent daughter who has returned home to bid goodbye to her father and grandmother and berate her mother as "toxic" before leaving with her husband (a marriage about which Lorraine was totally unaware) to live in Central America


Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland and Nico Santos 

The demise of Ljuba's Green Card dreams are clinched, however, when Lorraine learns that once Ljuba receives her Green Card,  she intends  to bring her daughter to America and start a new independent life in Florida

The Director Scott Elliott, who is also the artistic director of The New Group, teases the maximum "horror"" from the Eisenberg script, particularly in the final scene which is both chilling and painful to watch.  His work is expertly supported by his team of designers.   Derek McLane's blandly suburban living room/kitchen set conveys the perfect mood for the story to unfold while Jeff Croiter's  lighting and Rob Milburn's and Michael Bodeen's  in tandem sound effectively help to carry the proceedings to their pre-ordained conclusion.

As playwright and Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg notes in a recent interview, South Pacific is a play which blends fantasy and reality.  Lorraine in Happy Talk is a character who likewise  mixes fantasy, a world in which she finds comfort, with reality, but here with tragic consequences. The play itself is at its most moving, however, in its quiet moments where the beautifully matched pair -  Sarandon and Ireland reveal their characters' innermost hopes, dreams and fears or when Sarandon's and Oreskes' characters numbly soldier on with their empty dead marriage.

Happy Talk

Pershing Square Signature Center

480 West 42nd Street

Running time: one hour, 45 minutes


Closinng date: June 16, 2019