Over the course of three plays—Asuncion, The Revisionist, and The Spoils—Jesse Eisenberg has established himself as the premier satirist of guilt-ridden, ineffectual American liberalism. His work is littered with a gaggle of narcissistic, white idiots, and Happy Talk, his latest, is no exception. This is the first of his plays in which Eisenberg does not appear, and he seems to have written his usual part into Jenny (Tedra Millan), a young radical who briefly comes home to eat her parents’ food and criticize her mom, Lorraine (Susan Sarandon). But Happy Talk is about parents, not children, and the title is a reference to Lorraine’s ability to deflect unpleasantness: “Someone say something sad or angry and you just pretend like what they say is happy,” gushes her mother’s Serbian caretaker, Ljuba (Marin Ireland). “Is like you don’t even hear them sometimes.”
A fitting description. Lorraine, currently the star of the Jewish Community Center production of South Pacific, is an avalanche of conversation, often met with grumpy silence from her husband, Bill (Daniel Oreskes). Bill has erectile dysfunction and multiple sclerosis, leaving Lorraine to emotionally leech herself to Ljuba, whose own demeanor matches Lorraine’s in cheeriness if not in desperation. Eisenberg is on familiar, perhaps repetitive territory here, and yet I still found myself laughing at Lorraine’s obliviousness: like many of Eisenberg’s characters, she romanticizes the suffering of others, telling Ljuba, “Anything sad in my life is automatically sadder in yours.” Lorraine sees herself in her employee, just as she sees herself in everyone and in everything, but when Ljuba begins to pursue a green card marriage, she fears the scheme is a threat to her own psychological dominance; as the play progresses, Sarandon’s dilated, Bette Davis eyes first signal humor, then pathos, then finally menace.
As usual, Eisenberg is perceptive in his critique. Jenny, who now goes by “Darby,” spits with glee on the patriarchy, and yet there is a ring of misogyny to her accusation that Lorraine is “some stuck-up, yuppie cunt sequestered in the suburbs.” To Bill, whose money funds the very “bullshit consumerist culture” Jenny lambasts, she remains obsequious, calling him “daddy.” And she lauds her grandmother’s refusal to tip waiters as some sort of feminist protest, ignoring the server who is being screwed out of his compensation. Eisenberg has more sympathy for Lorraine, whose neediness seems to be the result of bad parenting and a quietly-dissolving marriage. As for the mashup of domestic comedy and domestic thriller, I hope this portends new directions for Eisenberg’s future work.
Happy Talk runs through June 16th at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. 480 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 45 minutes. No intermission.