Tuesday, May 21, 2019

HAPPY TALK: The Three Faces of Susan Sarandon

If you are familiar with Jesse Eisenberg, it's most likely to be from his acting career, with notable performances in such films as The Social Network in which he played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  But Eisenberg has also established himself as a writer, with pieces published in The New Yorker magazine, a collection of short stories, an upcoming novel, and several plays to his credit.

He himself does not appear in his latest play, Happy Talk, but the kind of irritatingly self-important, damaged and damaging character that has become a trademark for him lies at its heart, as directed by Scott Elliott for The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. 

The off-kilter character in this case is called Lorraine, played here by Susan Sarandon, someone who has a reputation for getting under people's skin herself through her outspoken and uncompromising political activism. Not unlike the woman portraying her, Lorraine comes off as self-defined, self-certain, and complicated.  

It seems at first glimpse as though we might be embarking on a sitcom filled with familiar types. Lorraine appears to be an egotistical suburban matron and community theater goddess, who turns every situation into a grand drama with her in the spotlight.  She is currently in rehearsals for the local Jewish Community Center production of South Pacific, in which she most absurdly will be playing the role of Bloody Mary.  If you've seen The Prom on Broadway, Lorraine may remind you of Beth Leavel's character.  

Her husband (Daniel Oreskes) seems to be a familiar type as well, a grumpy man who ensconces himself into his easy chair and occasionally grunts at his wife but mostly ignores her. There is also Lorraine's mother, a bedridden invalid whom we never meet and who is looked after by the play's other significant character, a chirpy and cheery Serbian illegal immigrant named Ljuba, marvelously played by Marin Ireland.

Marin Ireland and Susan Sarandon
Photo by Monique Carboni

Even though the play is written to be performed straight through its running time of 100 minutes, it does seem that it is divided into three separate acts. Anything I add by way of plot reveal here would be a spoiler, so I will simply say that in each of the acts, our sympathies are manipulated in a different way as we try to decide how we feel about Lorraine. It is all dependent on which side of her personality or piece of her life is shared with us at the time.  

This does make the play feel rather bumpy.  It's as if you were trying to climb down the side of a steep mountain and you keep coming to spots where you have to let yourself drop for some distance to the next ledge. The play has been criticized for these variations on Lorraine's personality, but I find in retrospect that it gives us a richer portrait of a messy, complex character than we might otherwise get.  

In the end, we may decide that Lorraine is "toxic," as her estranged daughter Jenny (Tedra Millan), who puts in a brief and unpleasant appearance, describes her. But we learn enough to at least begin to understand Lorraine, even if we would not want to have anything more to do with her than what she would actually want us to:  watching her play Bloody Mary onstage. That is the only place where she finds a sense of purpose and satisfaction and where she can escape her otherwise disappointing life.  

Admittedly, Happy Talk feels like it is a draft or two away from completion. But Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland, as well as the rest of the cast (which includes Nico Santos as one of Lorraine's theater colleagues) make it well worth the visit.  

Daniel Oreskes, Susan Sarandon, and Nico Santos
Photo by Monique Carboni


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current Broadway and Off Broadway plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 

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