It's easy to see why Susan Sarandon returned to the New York stage for the first time in a decade for "Happy Talk," the uneven new dramedy that opened Thursday in a New Group production at Off Broadway's Pershing Square Signature Center.
Jesse Eisenberg has crafted an old-fashioned star vehicle that centers on Sarandon's Lorraine, a suburban New Jersey diva with delusions of grandeur about her long list of community-theater credits and a bitchy wit that cuts everyone around her down to size.
That list includes her sad sack of a husband (Daniel Oreskes), who quietly battles MS and depression while reading Civil War books ("That is such an old man thing to do"); her twentysomething daughter (Tedra Millan), who hasn't contacted her parents in months ("She's probably joined a cult, which would at least provide her with some discipline"); and Ljuba (Marin Ireland), the undocumented Serbian woman who moved in six months ago to care for Lorraine's ailing, bed-bound (and unseen) mother -- who was a terror back in the day. ("I can understand you because I've done a lot of accent work.")
Eisenberg's script is often funny, and he gets much mileage out of Lorraine's verbal barbs -- as well as Ljuba's ability to either misdirect her insults or use her employer's vanity to her own advantage. But despite the hard work of a talented cast -- Ireland in particular seems to be having a blast -- director Scott Elliott's production can't overcome the one-dimensionality of the characters, or the creakiness of the plot.
Are we really supposed to swallow that Ronny (Nico Santos, "Crazy Rich Asians"), a show-tune obsessive who is playing Lt. Cable to Lorraine's Bloody Mary in a Jewish Community Center revival of "South Pacific," would actually agree to a green-card marriage with Ljuba despite having a long-time partner at home? Or that he'd just sit by when Lorraine praises the faux couple with racist shade like, "It doesn't even look weird that he's Asian"?
The late and sudden arrival of Lorraine's daughter Jenny, a Chomsky-reading vegan rebel who prefers to be called Darby, brings a welcome ballast of reality to the proceedings. In this short, sharply written scene, we come to understand how both Lorraine and her daughter have overcompensated in seeking to avoid becoming their mothers.
For Lorraine, enduring her mother's abuse has forced her to spin every slight in a more positive light. "Isn't that just so thoughtful of them to leave me out?" she says after learning that the "South Pacific" cast has been meeting for post-rehearsal drinks without her. "They know how seriously I take the show and that I'd be absolutely horrified if I knew they were all going out and getting fuddled at some cheap dive!"
And for Jenny, it means recasting her harpy of a grandmother as a heroine who raged against "patriarchal bulls---" -- but failing to make any allowances for her own "toxic" mother.
But just as quickly as Jenny/Darby slips through the sliding-glass doors of Derek McLane's suburban-perfect set, she's gone -- and we're back to Eisenberg's implausible green-card saga and a final-curtain twist that seems extreme and out of character. Bloody Mary deserves better.