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'Happy Talk' review: Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland lift a clumsy play

Jesse Eisenberg's latest makes its world premiere Off-Broadway.

Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland star

Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland star in Jesse Eisenberg's "Happy Talk."  Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

'Happy Talk' runs through June 16 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., thenewgroup.org.

At the very least, “Happy Talk,” a wobbly living room drama by Jesse Eisenberg, ought to make theatergoers eager to revisit the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which operates as a central point of reference in this New Group production starring Susan Sarandon. The play marks Eisenberg’s fourth work to be produced in New York since 2011 — and the first in which Eisenberg is not appearing in the cast himself.

Sarandon plays Lorraine, a well-meaning but self-centered woman living in suburban New Jersey who, in spite of a seriously ill mother and husband (Daniel Oreskes, “Oslo”), devotes much of her time to appearing in amateur productions of classic musicals at the local Jewish Community Center. Here, Lorraine is (quite perplexingly) playing Vietnamese merchant Bloody Mary in the JCC’s upcoming production of “South Pacific.” According to Lorraine, Bloody Mary is “the most dynamic character in the show” and “a severely broken woman.”

Also in the JCC cast is Ronny (Nico Santos, “Crazy Rich Asians”), who is playing Joe Cable, the dashing army lieutenant who hesitates to marry Bloody Mary’s daughter. (All things considered, this ought to have made for a very memorable production of “South Pacific.”)

Back at home, Lorraine tries her best to not speak to her mother (who is unseen in an adjoining room). Her husband, Bill, spends his time silently reading about the Civil War and sipping scotch. Lorraine’s closest companion is her mother’s nurse, Ljuba (Marin Ireland, “Sneaky Pete”), an illegal Serbian immigrant who seeks Lorraine’s help in finding an American man to marry so she can obtain a green card. It turns out that Ronny is willing to “fake marry” Ljuba in exchange for cash. Ronny’s boyfriend is apparently fine with the arrangement.

Eisenberg’s plays function best as detailed portraits of complex and often difficult people. Many of the narrative elements of “Happy Talk” are clumsy, creepy and heavy-handed, including a late night visit from Lorraine’s snarky adult daughter (Tedra Millan).

Nevertheless, “Happy Talk” (as directed by New Group artistic director Scott Elliott) is often absorbing, with numerous musical theater references and other cute touches intermixed with moments of sadness.

Sarandon gamely walks the fine line between kooky theatricality and vulnerability. And Ireland, who is best known for intense performances in numerous dramas, for once gets a chance to do some light comedy.

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