In Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg, adroitly directed by Scott Elliott, stealthy desperation that unravels into a high stakes gambit between employer Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) a Jewish community theater actress/housewife, and home health caretaker, Ljuba (Marin Ireland) climaxes by the end of the play. From the outset Eisenberg infers frenetic undercurrents in the dynamic between the two women. Lubja is the “happy,” compliant, illegal Serbian help and Lorraine negotiates the care of two individuals while she attempts a fantastic pretense that all is “well,” for the sake of the household. Both are fronting.
From their interactions at the top of the play, we divine a synergistic relationship between Ljuba and Lorraine. Ljuba is meticulous with Lorraine’s mom in her caretaking duties. Not in the country legally, Ljuba confides that she hopes to become a citizen via a green card marriage so that she might bring her daughter to the United States for a better life. Lorraine, whom we realize later in the play, is one step away from a nervous breakdown, has an upbeat attitude with Ljuba whom she treats as a friend. Importantly, she attempts to cheer up dour husband Bill, whose agonizing, degenerative MS is a depressive death sentence. Lorraine’s bedridden, incontinent mother is slowly dragging herself into the afterlife with Ljuba’s attentive care, feeding, changing and monitoring her. But in Lorraine’s daily existence, her mother is an afterthought, amidst her preparations for her role as “Bloody Mary” in the Jewish Community Center’s South Pacific.
Eisenberg’s arc of development between and among the characters is pegged to the gradual revelation of the deeper “ethos” of these two women and how they balance the precariousness of their daily emotional struggles to manage their inner tension and stress. They do this with “happy talk.” Though other songs from South Pacific are played with ironic intent during the dramatic interludes (“Bali H’ai,” “Twin Soliloquies,” Some Enchanted Evening,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) Eisenberg references the titular song sung by Bloody Mary. Initially, the analogy that Lorraine should be cast as Bloody Mary seems weird. But as the play unfolds, we understand the parallels of characterization flavored with trenchant sardonic humor. Both characters manifest underlying themes of manipulation, exploitation and desperation.
As the events unfold we realize that both Lorraine and Ljuba act to encourage themselves away from reality. One is easily recognizable because she wears “drama” on her sleeve and rambles on about the intentions and nuances of her role as Bloody Mary with her “co-star” Ronny (the fine Nico Santos). Ljuba is a joyful cipher who is unmasked by Jenny (Tedra Millan) Lorraine’s wrath-filled daughter whose condemnation of Lorraine is delivered in a rapid-fire series of punches. Jenny encourages Ljuba to be her real self, a painful prospect considering her circumstances.
The intrigue in this production is in its authenticity of Sarandon’s and Ireland’s, staged “happiness.” They mask their interactions with each other while they choke down their true feelings. Ljuba fears deportation. Lorraine fears losing everything to her husband’s sickness and death.
But as Eisenberg displays the characters in the first half, with the exception of taciturn Bill (the excellent Daniel Oreskes) there is no hint of debacle, desolation or tension. Lorraine and Ljuba are cheerful, “open,” convivial and warm and seem to genuinely care for each other. Lorraine’s “over-the-top” narcissism about her acting chops and Ljuba’s sweet generosity and friendliness incite humor. In their interplay Lorraine’s self-aggrandizement about acting appears shallow and we laugh at her presumptive “greatness.” Of course the irony that Susan Sarandon, who has a mile-long list of credits, praises her talent is rich. And Ireland playing hand maiden as an actress of lesser years and experience is equally ironic.
The plot thickens when Lorraine matches up Ljuba to Ronny as her green card husband and they create a backstory together complete with photographs, dates and events. There are twists and turns; the tension increases. We witness the severity of Bill’s illness and pain. Also, we note that Lorraine refuses to confront her mother’s illness and impending mortality. She avoids even looking in on her and only does so after daughter Jenny berates her about it.
Jenny’s sneaky arrival through the back garden sliding doors gyrates the play in another direction and twerks the cheerful atmosphere and humor. Tedra Millan drips bile as she notes the pretense between her mother and Ljuba. Her appalling relationship with Lorraine whom she hasn’t seen in six months becomes apparent, and we are swept into her authenticity, amazed at her reaction to Lorraine.
As Millan’s Jenny unloads a condemnatory rant in a fusillade of excoriations, with a self-justified tone of recrimination, she announces her permanent move to Costa Rica. Her brief visit to her grandmother and expression of love to Bill are almost ancillary. Her shooting target is Lorraine.
As divaish as Lorraine has been, Jenny assumes center stage; she a drama queen like her mother but with the intention to destroy. She shreds her mother until Lorraine has had enough and kicks her out, but not before Ljuba upbraids her. Nevertheless, Jenny has poisoned the well, and we look at the principals with a different perspective. Perhaps Jenny has clear-eyed vision in her suggestion that Ljuba is too compliant, too congenial in putting up with her mother. Perhaps Lorraine has another agenda in assisting Ljuba to obtain a green card marriage with Ronny.
In this highpoint of the play, the actors’ transformations are nuanced and real. Sarandon’s inner torment and guilt resonate with us and we shift toward her with empathy when she breaks down then recoups to carry on suppressing her pain so she will be able to go on. It’s an important moment during which Sarandon’s Lorraine becomes humanized.
Our estimation of Ljuba steps up when she defends Lorraine against what can only be a described as tragic hatred revealing traumatic hurt that Jenny has experienced growing up with Lorraine as her mother. Since we only hear Jenny’s side and see a humbled, guilty Lorraine who acts like a wounded animal, we cannot divine the truth. But we are on notice and watchful for additional signs of clarification.
Ireland and Sarandon play off each other like a chef and a sous chef that reverse the power dynamic now and again. The irony and sardonic humor laden with various tropes of middle class lifestyles gilding the darker aspects a “comfortable” life are jerked back at the end of the play. It is then we see the desperation and understand how economic hardship is the perennial wolf at the door. No amount of well meaning goodness can be sustained when the situation becomes a matter of life and death. Fear, panic and selfishness take over. And to survive, one must go along with what fate has dished up however terrible. When the masks are dropped, all becomes rotten and real and the “happy talk,” ends.
Happy Talk is a must see for the performances and the clever writing which changes on a dime to the unexpected and concludes with searing force into tragic collapse. The characterizations are grounded in the currency of the times and remind us that manipulations and secret agendas seek their own level of opportunity. The victims often have little recourse in the hands of unlikely predators whom one never sees coming.
Kudos to Derek McLane (Scenic Design) Clint Ramos (Costume Design) Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Sound Design) Leah J. Loukas (Hair, Wig, Makeup Design).
Happy Talk presented by The New Group is at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) until 16 June. For tickets and times at their website CLICK HERE.
Secrets are the bricks that layer the foundations of family histories. Such secrets may serve as supportive bonds to keep a family together through trials and catastrophes. They may spur families to create protective walls against a foreboding and nullifying social order. They also may imprison family members in a bottomless well of pain. What is hidden often then develops a dark, spiritual life of its own to create havoc until family members finally confront its reality.
Sam Shepard’s profound, Pultizer Prize-winning tour de force Buried Child is The New Group’s new production directed by Scott Elliott, currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center. It explores the devastation when what lurks underneath becomes an implement family members use to hack at each others’ souls. As they provoke one another and stir up whirlpools of misery, what has been concealed is eventually unearthed and they must confront the fear of its loathsomeness. Only then can they employ their strength to either reconcile with the past and heal, or die.
At the outset, we are introduced to the paterfamilias, Dodge (ironic name choice), sitting on the sofa as if he occupied this space without purpose and there is nowhere else for him to go. Dodge (Ed Harris) is nearly invisible.
Certainly he melds into the shabby interior of the house and the worn furniture. Except for the occasional cough and accompanying sip of whiskey from a bottle he hides under his blanket, we wouldn’t notice anything significant about his presence until he converses with his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who is upstairs getting ready for an outing. Their exchange becomes funny when Dodge mocks her pretensions and her suggestions, i.e. for their son Bradley to cut Dodge’s hair, which Bradley always butchers. Dodge’s wit and clever personality indicate that though he may now appear to be down-and-out, he once may have been a man to be reckoned with. He well plays the role of nagged husband, tolerant of Halie’s persistent, shrill commentary about everything from the weather to son Tilden, who makes his entrance soon after Halie tells Dodge to take his pill.
The brilliance of this play is in its suggestive, interpretative aspects; it is opaque and ambiguous, yet clearly sounds a bell of alarm. Characters present bits and pieces of information like a reversed puzzle. Truths slip in and out like whispers. Unveilings abide in the off-beat comments and actions of Tilden (a terrific Paul Sparks) and Bradley (the fine Rich Sommer), and in the contradictions posed by Dodge about the past and present. Glimmers of light reveal key themes about the flawed nature of human beings and their unsatisfying relationships, of the oppressiveness of fearful secrets that are not allowed to be uttered or expurgated, of the resulting soul sickness that chokes off vitality.
As Shepard brings this family to us through their conversations and clashes, we divine the background story, of a brokenness that overwhelms all of the sons and Dodge, and of a protective, hard lacquer that glistens from Halie’s persona as she steps quickly through time without looking to the right or left and especially not into the past.
Tilden, once an All-American halfback, is child-like, dense, withdrawn: these may be weaknesses caused by that “trouble in Mexico” a while ago. The obstreperous Bradley was careless with a chainsaw and chopped off his leg.
Bradley’s movement “to go far” has ended; he must wear a prosthetic device to go anywhere. The most promising son, Ansel, died in the military, and Halie, who meets with inoffensive, smarmy Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to discuss the placement of his statue in the community, brings the priest in for tea and stirs havoc. Clearly, Halie has sought religion to stave off the darkness.
Shepard’s writing is precisely rendered. He wanders his characters through a filtered catastrophe that they have long suppressed. Their meanderings with each other are filled with humor, thematic layers, poetry, and symbolism. The dramatic action is interior; when Tilden, Bradley, or Halie appear, disappear, and interact, the molecules have been stirred, the atmosphere changes, and tensions strain. There is the sometimes gentle, sometimes antagonistic sparring among the four. And Dodge is central; he grounds all who enter and leave with brusque ease. He is the family linchpin, and only he will be able to exhume what sickens in all of them when the time is ready.
Shepard’s grand metaphor of the harvest, sown in the past and now ready to be picked and enjoyed, is spiritual, interpretive, and surreal. It is a harvest seen and recognized by some in the family and not others, much as truth and circumstances are perceived and interpreted individualistically. Shepard combines this metaphor with an even greater one, a human embodiment of the harvest in the characterization of Vince (Tilden’s son whom no one initially acknowledges or seems to remember), and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga is appropriately sharp and intrusive), whose curiosity eventually prompts Dodge to reveal that which has been rotting the foundations of their family relationships and particularly Dodge’s soul.
That Vince (a portentous and dangerous Nat Wolff) and Shelly appear at precisely the right moment when the crops are ready to be harvested is a singular mystery answered by the play’s conclusion. Dodge finally discloses the secret of the fields and acknowledges that he is no longer afraid; it is then that the reckoning comes. Shepard emphasizes in Buried Child that there indeed is a season for everything. And regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it, the ripeness of fulfilled truth eventually is visited on a family, though it may skip a generation or two.
This is a magnificent production, prodigiously acted by the ensemble cast and brilliantly conceived, staged, and designed by Scott Elliott and his team. The production throbs with tension. The undercurrents vibrate throughout. Above all the character portrayals balance evenly to create a living portrait of the poignancy of human families.
Ed Harris resides in Dodge with sustained concentration and moment-to-moment precision, even as the audience shuffles in and fumbles around for their seats (before the play begins). Harris embodies the character’s rough-edged, blunt and ironic persona and it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. His seamless sliding underneath Dodge’s skin is without equal. Amy Madigan as Halie is his perfect counterpart, striking and glorious one moment and in the next shrew-like and high-pitched as if stretched to the point of breaking.
Indeed, Elliott has guided this cast into taut perfection; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Taissa Farmiga, Rich Sommer, Nat Wolff and Larry Pine would not be as alive in their characters as they are if the balance and the pressure were not tuned to a proper pitch by each actor’s work.
Buried Child is beyond memorable. It is is one for the ages. The New Group production runs until April 3 at Pershing Square Signature Center.