When Susan Sarandon finally ceases her persistent upbeat chatter in Jesse Eisenberg’s new play Happy Talk, the resulting awkward silence does not feel wholly intentional.
Eisenberg’s play provides a gruelling obstacle course for director Scott Elliott. Via a series of hairpin turns, it veers from cringe comedy to family drama and back again until the production eventually flies off course. But, for all its tonal shifts, it remains opaque as to what the play is actually trying to say.
Sarandon plays Lorraine, an attention-seeking, controlling housewife whose life revolves around community theatre. It feeds her need to be in the spotlight. Her husband (Daniel Oreskes) is ill, her abusive mother is dying, and she’s estranged from her daughter (Tedra Millan), so she avoids her painful reality with musical theatre and self-deluding cheer.
The captive audience for Lorraine’s dramatics is, more often than not, her mother’s caretaker Ljuba (Marin Ireland). An undocumented Serbian immigrant, Ljuba wants Lorraine to assist her in arranging a green card marriage, so she has little choice but to humour her.
Sarandon seems ill at ease in the role and rarely reveals what’s going on behind Lorraine’s performative positivity. Ireland wears Ljuba’s fake smile and desperation naturally. Nico Santos, as the gay man planning to marry Ljuba, convincingly shifts from upbeat to frightened.
While Lorraine is insensitive to the extreme, it’s not always clear if the play intends her offensive remarks to be cringeworthy. Because the plotting has a sitcom vibe, the comedy often results in hesitant laughter or confused silence. So when the writing temporarily becomes sincere, it’s hard to take it seriously.