Happy Talk review – Susan Sarandon can't save Jesse Eisenberg's trite play

There are a number of nagging questions that arise during Happy Talk, the latest play from the Oscar-nominated actor turned playwright Jesse Eisenberg, and frustratingly, none of them are intentional. While our curiosity should be fixed on the potentials of the plot, instead it meanders elsewhere, wondering just what about this particular story and this particular lead character attracted both Eisenberg and his star Susan Sarandon, lured back to the stage for the first time in 10 years.

Sarandon is an extremely talented and ever-dependable actor who has felt somewhat left behind by the recent rise in roles for older women in Hollywood. Meaty work in The Meddler and Feud aside, she’s not felt as present as one might expect or as she might deserve with her last true lead in the drama Viper Club glumly premiering on YouTube. If nothing else, Happy Talk provides her with a dominant central role, the Oscar-winner barely leaving the stage throughout the play’s 105-minute runtime. She stars as Lorraine, a motor-mouthed New Jerseyite who finds her passion acting in community theater productions (the show’s title a reference to her role in South Pacific) before heading home to tell her monosyllabic husband all of the many, many details, whether he wants to hear them or not. The only real conversation she finds at home is via sweet-natured Serbian immigrant Ljuba (Marin Ireland), a live-in aide to Lorraine’s ailing mother.

Lorraine’s aggressive optimism sits alongside her even more aggressive egotism, talking of her musical theatre exploits as if she were Patti LuPone but given her situation, one can hardly blame her for some gentle exaggeration. Her husband barely talks to her, her mother barely remembers her and her daughter barely sees her. There are echoes of Valerie Cherish, Lisa Kudrow’s tragic yet trying antiheroine from the underrated HBO comedy The Comeback, a character who courts pity in one moment and frustration in the next. But Eisenberg’s characterisation is thin and as hard as Sarandon tries, she’s unable to turn Lorraine into someone with even a fraction of the humanity or even the quotability, her offhand barbs never quite sharp enough to stick in the memory.

Susan Sarandon, Marin Ireland and Nico Santos in Happy Talk. Photograph: Monique Carboni

As a failed, often delusional actor refusing to give up the ghost, Lorraine is a familiar archetype and Eisenberg, seemingly aware of this, works at modernising her situation with limited success. There are some rather clumsy attempts to add topicality from on-the-nose discussions about immigration to a broader theme of using a positive outlook to cope with America’s downward spiral but they rarely work and as such, it’s difficult to detach the character from the familiar sitcom trappings she seems so suited to. Eisenberg also turns her daughter, who appears in just one scene, into a belligerent, yet uneven, woke liberal whose progressive ideals are at odds with her ridicule of Ljuba’s accent.

The setting, a chintzy suburban home, is impressively functional and also a further reminder of the show’s sitcom qualities, most pronounced in a rather witless sequence that sees Lorraine try to engineer a marriage of convenience between Ljuba and a cartoonish gay fellow actor, played by Crazy Rich Asians star Nico Santos. As Ljuba, stage veteran Ireland plays it big and initially, one’s concerned that she has gone too far, but she works hard to sell her character’s manic charm. As mentioned, Sarandon also gives a lot and it’s a pleasure to see her granted the prominence her skills demand, even if one leaves wanting more for her outside of this off-Broadway space.

As the play plods along, Eisenberg flings in a last-minute twist that lands with a thud, a reversal that, while adding some weight to the material, doesn’t entirely convince. It’s less the twist itself but more how it plays out, awkwardly and campily, ending the show on a duff note. It’s a strangely underwhelming play, stranger still given Eisenberg’s intellect and Sarandon’s talent, and I left with those nagging questions frustratingly unanswered.

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