DF: A couple of weeks before seeing Happy Talk, I was reading coverage of the Met Gala—the title this year was “Camp: Notes on Fashion”—and was struck by how few people understood the theme. Anna Wintour herself couldn’t really explain what it meant. As Louis Armstrong famously said about jazz, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. That’s sure how I felt watching much of Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, which, though only intermittently “campy,” requires a grasp of the style that few people involved exhibit. A significant lack of the camp gene on display, I’d say.
CK: You and I have frequently discussed the concept of mass-produced camp—specifically, that some artists attempt to manufacture something that should be organic. There is an element of that in Happy Talk. But the more I think about it, I wonder if the overall mess of this play—the strangely disjunctive performances, the multiple disparate strands of plot—actually make it a camp artifact in and of itself.
DF: I can absolutely see that—how the way in which the show consciously (and rather smugly) imagines itself to be camp is dwarfed by the almost catastrophic ways in which it hilariously is unintentional camp! But before we go too far along this trail, perhaps we should back up and explain—in as un-campy a way as we can—the basic nature of Happy Talk. (And I suppose we also need to avoid the spoilers.) Are you game to try?
CK: A level of campiness jumped out to me when I first read the show description a few weeks ago. It centers on Lorraine (played by Susan Sarandon), an affluent suburban housewife and community theater diva, who’s preparing to play Bloody Mary at the local JCC. (Camp scorecard: wacky older woman, check. Amateur theatrics, check. Questionable and problematic character casting, check!) The chameleon-like Marin Ireland shows up as a downtrodden Serbian home-health aide—and I don’t know about you, but “serious actor puts on a thick accent” is a camp trope to me.
DF: All that and more. And yet, though I agree with everything you’ve said, I don’t think camp is ultimately Eisenberg’s intent. But if not that, what? Beats me. I’m at a loss to explain the tonal clusterfuck that is Happy Talk—part bitchy comedy à la Nicky Silver (that’s the camp aspect, for sure), part mawkish family melodrama…and don’t even get me started on the last ten minutes, clearly meant to unnerve the audience, which completely upended any sense I had of where anything was headed. No wonder poor Susan Sarandon seemed lost. Camp really isn’t in her acting skill set. So much of her role seems tailored to an actress like Linda Lavin or Christine Baranski, who can really play with the caustic, passive-aggressive bite it needs…and, frankly, can land the jokes that Sarandon kept missing. She’s far better in the raw emotional moments—but that’s also where the play is at its weakest.
CK: If you asked me to describe Sarandon’s assets as an actor in a single word, it wouldn’t be “funny.” Instead, I would say she brings a rewarding earnestness to her best performances, plus a kind of sweetness tempered with a wry understanding of how the world works. That’s on display here, and it doesn’t work. Her character should be larger than life, but the performance she supplies is entirely earthbound. (This is especially noticeable next to Nico Santos and Tedra Millan, both playing their broad-strokes characters—Lorraine’s gay pet and her resentful daughter—to the hilt.) Even surefire laugh lines land with a thud.
DF: When you mention the others, I realize that we have five actors seemingly in four different plays. Agreed that Santos and Millan come closest to realizing the comedy—he very much in that ultra-gay camp sense, her with the kind of comic snark I associate with young Winona Ryder. Daniel Oreskes, playing Sarandon’s husband, is marvelous—but it’s a detailed, realistic, comedy-free performance that we might expect in an Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill play. And then there’s Marin Ireland, who starts in one place and ends in another. I was fascinated to watch her trying on a broadly comic persona in the early scenes—I don’t think it’s a natural fit, but she’s such a translucent presence that she can’t help but be compelling. But the end…well, I don’t want to say too much, but I worry that she’s playing a persona that comes all too easily to her. Frankly, this all-over-the-map quality really doesn’t speak well for Scott Elliott’s direction, either.
CK: I think Ireland ultimately ends up the exemplar of the play’s problems—more so than Sarandon, she seems asked to play a different person in every scene. She manages with style and pathos because of her talent, but the disjunction is glaring. I can see how that might seem like a directorial problem, and I’ve not always been a great fan of Elliott’s work in the past (especially his totally wrongheaded production of Buried Child a few years ago). Yet I wonder—and I don’t want this to sound like I’m punting—how much any director could have done to make this material cohere. Yes, every performer is in his or her own play…but isn’t that more or less true of every character too?
DF: Yes, and yes—Elliott hasn’t fixed the problems, nor does he seem to “get” the play…but I’m not sure anyone could. Personally, I’m glad I saw Happy Talk, as much for the unconscious camp of its failings as for the few positive elements. I do think Eisenberg has a good ear for dialogue and some promise as a playwright. And Sarandon brings to the stage some of the charisma she also shows on film. But I certainly left with a WTF? feeling.
CK: I agree that Eisenberg clearly has writing talent, and that it isn’t simply the case of a Hollywood star with “but-what-I-really-want-to-do-is…” syndrome. Yet, Happy Talk is his fourth play to receive a major production in New York in less than a decade—how much longer can that promise hold out? To keep with the general idea of South Pacific: at what point does “A Cockeyed Optimist” become “This Nearly was Mine”?
Happy Talk, a production of The New Group, plays at Signature Theatre through June 16. For more information, visit the website.