Social Security is a comedy that strives to dispel misconceptions about the elderly but fails to do so in a powerful manner, due to both an underdeveloped story and characters.
The play, directed at Coach House Theatre by Nancy Cates, was written in 1986 by Andrew Bergman, who co-wrote the screenplay for Mel Brooks’ iconic comedy Blazing Saddles. Bergman’s only Broadway endeavor included stars Olympia Dukakis as the elderly Sophie and Marlo Thomas as her daughter, Barbara.
But Bergman must have left most of his funny bone behind, because much of the story’s writing falls flat.
The small Coach House cast, composed of regular stars Richard Worswick, Dede Klein, Holly Humes, Mark Stoffer, Maureen Guerin-Johnson and Richard Figge, is certainly game. They do the best they can, given the lack of substance in the material.
The play, which Cates has changed to a 2003 setting, still has a dated feel with the formal manner of speaking by characters Barbara (Klein) and David (Worswick), sophisticated New York art dealers. There’s nothing in the dialogue that indicates this story could be taking place in the technology-laden new millennium.
The biggest problem comes right off the bat: Bergman takes nearly all of Act I setting up how difficult Barbara and Trudy’s mother, Sophie, is without bringing her onstage until the last moment. Guerin-Johnson makes an impressive entrance as the scowling Sophie, who storms in with her walker as Klein’s Barbara cowers by the side of the couch.
Even so, I would have preferred less exposition among the sisters and their spouses in favor of seeing Sophie onstage sooner. Even when she and Barbara are kibitzing in Act II, we don’t witness enough conflict to believe that Barbara and David (Worswick) see Sophie as an impossible person to get along with.
Better to show some serious conflict and its inherent comedic possibilities with an octogenarian mother than to largely talk around it. Sophie does her guilt-tripping and nitpicking, but Barbara comes across mainly as petty in her annoyance with her mother.
The play moves abruptly from one extreme to another when Sophie falls for Maurice (a cute turn by Figge), an artist who’s pushing 100. Her life is transformed, yet we only see one slight indication before then that Sophie yearns for excitement.
“I’m still a woman. I’m still alive,’’ Sophie revels after she’s fallen deeply in love. Guerin-Johnson makes one of the most vibrant entrances I’ve ever seen after Sophie’s transformation.
Yet by the play’s end, we still feel like we’d like to get to know her better.
The premise for Social Security is a good one: Both young people and the aged often underestimate what the elderly can do and dismiss the idea of them enjoying rich, exciting lives. As long as Sophie’s daughters treat her like a burden — a person put out to pasture — she’s likely to stay mired there.
The comedy has some risqué language: The malapropisms Trudy and Martin use while discussing their daughter’s sexual promiscuity are some of the funniest bits in the show.
Humes is believably humorless, uptight and uncultured as Trudy, and Stoffer creates a doltish Martin. The set by Terry Burgler, Cates’ husband, has the most interesting variety of artwork I’ve seen on the Coach House stage.
Cates said the mainstage play was chosen in honor of the company’s new Elder Theatre, a staged reading series that explores topics of the elderly. It is fitting that in Social Security, it’s not the oldest person in the story who’s the most fearful of change.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.