“I always thought that my lot in life was to help people en masse,” pontificates Susan Sarandon as an unbearable community theater diva in Jesse Eisenberg’s half-baked new play, Happy Talk.
“Through my work. People see me on stage. They see the human condition — it filters through me — and maybe they learn a little something about themselves,” Sarandon’s character, Lorraine, says.
Eisenberg, who played Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s The Social Network, is no stranger to portraying unlikeable characters. He doesn’t appear here, instead handing off the jeer-hiss parts to Sarandon and to Tedra Millan, as her daughter, Jennifer.
Lorraine is playing Bloody Mary in the Raritan Valley JCC’s production of South Pacific (thus the Rodgers and Hammerstein-inspired title). Her main interest is her invalid mother’s Serbian live-in nurse, Ljuba (the excellent Marin Ireland), who needs a green card marriage, stat. Lorraine, seeing another opportunity to “help,” takes it upon herself to find the perfect match. “I’m like Yenta the Matchmaker, a role I could have devoured if I weren’t too pretty when they did it in town,” she says.
The play, directed by Scott Elliott, tosses in a lot about the contemporary American condition (immigration, the generation gap, elder care). It does so without venturing beyond cliché. Lorraine is such a one-dimensional caricature of comfortable upper-middle-class femininity that she borders on the obscene – which is fine, if you commit to parody. But Eisenberg tries for pathos, giving Lorraine a long scene where she’s made out to be the victim of her entitled daughter. Jennifer goes by Darby nowadays, evidently because Lorraine gave her “a shit name that’s stuck in your antiquated binary bubble.”
Jennifer/Darby serves as the necessary ‘Kids-These-Days’ patsy by quoting Chomsky, behaving abominably to her mother, then, to top it off, accusing Lorraine of being a “shitty wife” to her father, the MS-ridden Bill (Daniel Oreskes). (The genuinely funny Oreskes spends much of the first half of the play sitting silently in an armchair and staring at Lorraine in disbelieving disgust – an audience surrogate, I like to think.) Lorraine snaps and boots Jennifer out of the house. Cue applause.
Oreskes and Ireland do best with their characters, but Oreskes is on stage too little, and Ireland’s story subjugated to her co-star’s. Eisenberg’s treatment of an immigrant at the mercy of her parochial American employer has potential, but the power imbalance winds up little more than a twisted mother-daughter substitute relationship.
Presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, through June 16.