Susan Sarandon has to summon her vaunted acting skills in an attempt to pull off a credibility-challenged plot surprise that author Jesse Eisenberg has handed her in his play “Happy Talk,” a New Group presentation directed by Scott Elliott. She does her best, but her acting prowess doesn’t make his gambit any more believable. However, until that moment Sarandon’s performance and fine acting by the rest of the cast make watching Eisenberg’s intriguing basic set-up and character creations rewarding.
Sarandon plays Lorraine, who finds enjoyment in acting and is rehearsing a production of “South Pacific” for a suburban Jewish Community Center. A laugh is earned with the revelation that she is cast against type as Bloody Mary. Despite her outward cheerfulness most of the time, Lorraine’s life is hardly a hoot. Her husband Bill (Daniel Oreskes) is seriously ill and very uncommunicative, indicating a marriage gone blah. Her mother, whom we never meet, lies ill in an bedroom offstage from the homey set designed by Derek McLane.
Lorraine’s primary communication is with her mother’s caretaker, Ljuba, an illegal immigrant from Serbia, who seems extremely competent and engenders laughter when she wonders whether people would notice her accent, which is extremely heavy. Marin Ireland plays Ljuba dynamically, and when she reveals that she has saved $15,000 that she could use to purchase a mock marriage that would earn her citizenship, Lorraine puts her together with a fellow thesbian, Ronny (Nico Santos). That gambit doesn’t stand the credibility test. Ronny is so clearly gay that immigration investigators would quickly suspect a scheme.
Barging suddenly into the household is Lorraine’s estranged daughter, Jenny (Tedra Millan), who absolutely loathes her mother, apparently for feeling neglected. But Jenny acts like such a bitch that when at the performance I attended Lorraine forcibly kicked her out of the house the audience applauded.
Sarandon succeeds step by step in portraying Lorraine’s basic loneliness and having a difficult personality, partly illustrated when she learns that actors in the company have been going out after rehearsals without her. Sarandon is especially effective in a private crying scene after the perceptive Ljuba urges her to let her inner feelings emerge. We get the impression that Lorraine is a complex person, self-absorbed and trying to hide, even from herself, the emptiness in her life, for which she tries to compensate with her love for acting.
What we don’t get is the expectation that Lorraine would do something that the playwright concocts for her in the play’s nasty windup. Sarandon plunges into it with conviction, but she cannot surmount the unlikelihood of the cruelty and sick selfishness Lorraine displays no matter how hard Sarandon skillfully tries. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed May 18, 2019.