BWW Review: Marin Ireland and Susan Sarandon in Jesse Eisenberg's Tale of Immigration and Codependency, HAPPY TALK
One of the many skills of the extraordinary, detail-oriented stage actor Marin Ireland is a habit of being so good that she can lift the audience's perception of a play that isn't quite there. For example, a year ago at this time, as she was making Tennessee Williams' SUMMER AND SMOKE, generally regarded as one of the great playwright's B-level efforts, appear to be just as rich and dramatically thick as A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.
And while she won't fool you into thinking Jesse Eisenberg's Happy Talk has Pulitzer potential, her portrayal of Ljuba, an undocumented Serbian woman working in America as a live-in caregiver while trying to save enough money to buy a green card marriage that will allow her to bring her daughter over from the home country, is by far the strongest aspect of director Scott Elliott's production for The New Group.
Designer Derek McLane submits his usual excellent work to set the play in the suburban New Jersey living room of Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), a sort-of self-professed progressive with a narcissistic streak that blinds her to her unfeeling tendencies.
"I'm an artist. We live in the shadows, we bend the rules," is how Lorraine describes her self-styled eccentric nature, though her artistry is limited to being the resident diva for her Jewish Community Center's musical productions.
She's currently in rehearsals to play Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese woman making a living by selling overpriced souvenirs to Navy Seabees in Rodgers and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC. As she attends rehearsals and other social functions, Ljuba cares for her bed-ridden mother and for her husband Bill (Dan Oreskes), who due to advancing multiple sclerosis, spends most his time sitting quietly.
Ljuba is typically all smiles and peppy enthusiasm when dealing with her employer, but she lives with the knowledge that anyone who chooses to rat her out could send her to prison.
"I can't drive a car. I can't go to doctor, if I get sick. I can't take a bus, go to the airport, talk to a policeman like everyone else. I can't even see my daughter. And every single person... they can take my life in one second."
When her frustrated employee explains that she's only half-way to saving the $30,000 it would take to acquire a green card husband, Lorraine, finds a gay member of her SOUTH PACIFIC cast, Ronny (Nico Santos), willing to do it for $15,000.
Conveniently, Ronny is in a long-term relationship with a man who doesn't believe in gay marriage.
"He thinks gay marriage 'whitewashes our struggle' or something."
While Ronny and Ljuba go through the process of documenting their fake history, there's a surprise visit from Lorraine's estranged daughter Jenny (Tedra Millan) who announces that she'll soon be moving permanently to Costa Rica with her husband.
Witnessing the toxic relationship between Lorraine and her daughter, Ljuba begins to realize the void her presence is filling for her employer just when Lorraine is facing the eventuality of losing everyone in her world. This is when Happy Talk takes a sharp turn from light comedy to something more repulsive.
And yes, Eisenberg's dialogue is frequently funny, though the subjects of community theatre divas and gay men marrying women for money are more worthy of familiar chuckles than genuine laughter.
When this reviewer attended, the biggest laugh of the evening came when Lorraine envisioned she and Ljuba going "on the run together, like Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly." Perhaps more than one viewer imagined that line referring to a different pair of women before Sarandon was cast.