National Jewish Theater

My landlord takes great pleasure in complaining to me about theater groups that forget that most of their regular subscribers are middle-aged or older: these companies insist on putting on plays that are too “strange and weird and depressing” for their audiences to bear. His voice becomes especially hurt and angry whenever he talks about a certain company that had the incredibly poor taste to produce a play called “Rat in the Head, or something like that.”

If only that theater had had the wisdom to produce a play like Social Security, my landlord might still be a subscriber. Safe, entertaining, slightly more risque than commercial TV, but less explicit than cable, Social Security couldn’t be a better match for the National Jewish Theater’s mildly liberal, mildly enlightened, mostly late-middle-aged audience. First produced on Broadway in 1986, Social Security has a script that’s very talky, sometimes witty, and perfectly geared to a generation raised on radio but now addicted to TV.

David and Barbara are a rich, glib, sophisticated couple in their early 40s living in an ultrachic Manhattan apartment. Life is sweet for David and Barbara. They own two Wassily chairs, several abstract expressionist paintings, and a bar supposedly once owned by Dick Powell. They love their careers (both are art dealers), love each other, but mostly they love to talk.

Happily, Barbara’s hopelessly middle-class suburbanite sister, Trudy, and her equally humdrum husband, Martin, are dropping by (around the middle of the first act) to talk over a problem they have. This gives David and Barbara plenty to speculate about before Trudy and Martin arrive. David is convinced that the problem is their sexy 18-year-old daughter. She must be pregnant, he says in a rueful tone that makes one think he regrets he’s not the father. Barbara, oblivious to David’s symptoms of mid-life crisis, worries that something must be wrong with her sourpuss mother, Sophie, who lives with Trudy and Martin on Long Island.

It turns out that David and Barbara are both right. Trudy and Martin have recently discovered, to their horror, that their daughter has all but given up her studies at a college in Buffalo to devote full-time to her real love–sex. “She told me, ‘I live for sex,'” Trudy says, adding that her daughter now lives in an apartment in Buffalo with two sexually athletic men who seem to do nothing but keep her daughter in a state of pure postcoital rapture.

Trudy and Martin have decided they must fly to Buffalo immediately to save their daughter. They plan to stay in Buffalo “as long as it takes,” and so David and Barbara must take care of Sophie while they are gone. Barbara and David protest, but Trudy and Martin have planned this maneuver perfectly–Sophie is waiting downstairs in the car. The first act ends with Sophie’s entrance–hair net, housecoat, walker, and all–into David and Barbara’s urban Eden.

“Ask not for whom the walker thumps,” Barbara says gloomily early in the second act, “it thumps for thee.” It’s soon clear, however, that playwright Andrew Bergman has no interest in exploring in any realistic way the problems that crop up when an elderly mother moves in with her middle-aged daughter. The second act is hardly under way before Sophie begins to effect the change from aging Jewish mother to one of those tough, spry old ladies of the type that Ruth Gordon was so fond of playing. She meets and falls in love with one of David’s artists, an unbelievably energetic 98-year-old artist named Maurice. Before you can say “December spring,” Sophie has cast off her walker and her accent and has moved in with Maurice to live a life much like her granddaughter’s in Buffalo.

Which is the long way of saying that the story that takes so long to get moving in the first act moves so quickly in the second that it could easily have gotten away from the author altogether if it hadn’t fallen into such a well-worn and predictable rut.

Mind you, this comfortably sentimental comic fantasy was never for a moment boring, which says as much for the National Jewish Theater’s well-crafted production as for Bergman’s skin-deep story. Under B.J. Jones’s direction, the competent cast managed to make the play seem believable, if not particularly profound. Barbara June Patterson in particular deserves praise for playing what amounts to two separate characters–Sophie the kvetching yenta, and Sophie the sexy old lady. Of the rest of the cast, only Daniel Oreskes (as David) and Lucy Childs (as Trudy) really seem to understand how to squeeze the laughs out of Bergman’s dialogue.

But Social Security never manages to reach the shallow comic depths of Bergman’s most successful work to date, Blazing Saddles. Most of its weak comedy belongs to that anemic tradition in which, if the joke isn’t going well, you toss in a few stray Yiddish words, and voila! Jewish humor you can whip up in a flash. Little more than a well-written sitcom for the stage, Social Security will satisfy anyone looking for a very mild divertissement. Everyone else, however, will leave the theater muttering that comedy used to be made of sterner stuff.