Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2006
Watching Social Security is sort of like eating a meringue. All sweet fluff that dissolves quickly. As a critic it is my job to take a knife and fork and dissect the creation, and I am here to tell you that there is not much to it. You have it better than I do, you can just pop it into your mouth and enjoy its momentary sweetness, whereas I have to think about it, and that is frustrating.
Social Security is a modest, community-theatre-sized comedy. One set, six characters, no stunt work. A logical choice with which to close the Ghent Playhouse season. And so it came as a surprise to me to learn that it had run for year (1986-1987) on Broadway. I can hardly conceive of this poorly written and inconsequential little play, by a playwright with virtually no name recognition, generating enough interest to make it viable in a big Broadway house, even with big names like Marlo Thomas and Olympia Dukakis on the marquee.
Playwright Andrew Bergman (1945- ) is not a household name, even though he came up with the original idea for and collaborated on the final screenplay for the comedy classic Blazing Saddles. Since then, he has written or co-written screenplays for The In-Laws, Fletch, and Soapdish, and written and directed The Freshman, Honeymoon in Vegas, and It Could Happen to You. Social Security is his sole work for the theatre.
Analyzing the structure of Social Security it is not difficult to see that Bergman is used to writing for the camera and not the stage. There are many moments when characters converse privately, even though they are in full sight and hearing of others. On film one would simply shoot a close-up of the conspiratorial couple and the audience would accept the fact that they were speaking alone and unheard by others. On stage you can’t focus the audience’s attention that specifically.
Social Security tells the barely dramatic story of two sisters, Barbara Kahn (Mary Caldwell) and Trudy Heyman (Roseann Cane), dealing with their lonely and aging mother Sophie Greengrass (Marie Allocca). She has been living with Trudy and her husband Martin (Keith Caldwell) on Long Island, but when Martin and Trudy become alarmed by the sexual escapades of their (unseen) daughter Sarah, away from home for the first time as a college freshman, they dump Sophie on Barbara and her art-dealer husband David (Grant Miller) in their chic apartment on Manhattan’s upper east side.
To review the plot briefly like that, you might expect quite a moving and poignant play about how middle-aged people cope with their aging parents, knowing full well that their time is coming all too soon. A playwright could explore the relationship of the two sisters to each other, to their husbands, and to their mother. Bergman doesn’t do any of this. His characters are all comic stereotypes, broadly painted with a familiar brush. Too much time is devoted to conversations that, while funny, don’t reveal much, and not enough time is given to establishing conflict. Without conflict there can be no resolution.
So instead of looking into realistic family relationships, Bergman presents Sophie with a love interest in the form of 98-year-old Maurice Koenig (Jack Harrell), a world-famous artist. The conclusion gives everyone except Trudy, about whom we are apparently not supposed to care, a new lease on love and lust, two highly entertaining aspects of life, but hardly its apex.
I warned you that the experience of looking deeply into this shallow pool was going to be a frustrating one, and that might give you the impression that actually seeing this production is equally unsatisfying, which it is not. Light comedy, done well, can be entertaining. Here, directed by Paul Leyden and performed by a solid amateur cast on an attractive set, there is little to grumble about.
Bergman has created caricatures rather than characters, and so typecasting is of the essence. In Cane, Keith Caldwell, and Allocca, Leyden has come up with perfect types for the more extreme roles. Mary Caldwell and Miller have the more nebulous roles, and consequently their performances appear weaker. This is an illusion as it is actually the writing that is weak, and not the actors. The characters of Barbara and David are given more “air time” and reveal the fact that Bergman actually has very little to say. Mary Caldwell and Miller do their best with what they are given and manage to be engaging and entertaining.
Cane is a perfect shrew as Trudy, and she milks the incomplete character for all she is worth. What makes Trudy so miserable and grasping, so very different from Barbara? We will never know, but Cane gets several good laughs from taking this extreme character way over the top. Keith Caldwell makes his Martin a delightfully hen-pecked nebbish, using his pudding face to great effect.
Compared to the hysteria that surrounds her, Allocca plays Sophie quietly, almost sympathetically. She is, after all, a lonely widow dealing with her own mortality. And living with Martin and Trudy couldn’t possibly be a restful experience. Allocca’s portrayal of Sophie’s genuine surprise at finding love in her 80’s is one of the more touching and human moments in the play. Unfortunately Harrell’s Maurice is a barely noticeable blip on the stage compared with the din that surrounds him.
Tom Detwiler has designed an attractive and versatile set. All the action takes place in Barbara and David’s art-encrusted apartment, circa 1985, and Detwiler has done a good job of capturing the look and feel of that period and its art.
The real star of the show is the painting of Allocca, executed, I believe by Paul Murphy, that appears as Maurice’s rendering of Sophie. The work really does celebrate the beauty and vitality of a “vintage” lady. I hope that Allocca gets to keep it once the final curtain falls.
Overall, the costumes by Vivian Wachsberger do a good job of defining the characters. But while Mary Caldwell and Allocca are given frankly flattering outfits, poor Cane is stuck in ugly clothes that distract and detract from the quality of her performance. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there is no reason for any performer to be forced to wear clothing that doesn’t fit or flatter unless the script and character specifically call for it. And that is not the case here.
Leyden moves the show along briskly and if it weren’t for a rather gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic description of Sarah’s sexual antics in the first scene, Social Security would play throughout as wholesome family fare. As it stands though, I would have to say that youngsters under 14 really shouldn’t attend, unless the adults accompanying them are prepared to explain the intricacies of a menage a trois.
Social Security runs weekends through June 4, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs just under two hours with one intermission. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006