The Apple Hill Playhouse opens their 36th season with Andrew Bergman’s play, Social Security. With a name like Social Security, one fears the theatre itself may be edging into its dotage with what sounds like it could be a geriatric snoozefest set in a Florida nursing home. Au contraire. Bergman’s edgy comedy is in fact set in the Manhattan apartment of successful art gallery owners David (D Palyo) and Barbara Kahn (Emma Crist). The play covers three generations of a Jewish family through the lens of love in its varying forms.
The play opens with David and Barbara anxiously awaiting the arrival of her sister Trudy (Margaret Ryan) and brother-in-law Martin (Rick Dutrow). Before Trudy even arrives, it’s already apparent the two are opposites. Barbara mockingly imitates Trudy’s Long Island accent as she hypothesizes on the reason for their unexpected visit into the city. Barbara is stylishly slim with a high blonde ponytail and silver python flats. Her black leggings are flatteringly covered by a kimono layered over a fuchsia top. The cast provided their own costumes, and while director Katya R. Shaffer undoubtedly had input, Crist clearly illustrates good taste. She brings a crispness to Barbara’s character, yet keeps her approachable.
Despite seeing her sister as a bit of a yokel, Barbara still wants to impress her, fluffing the pillows and picking invisible lint off of the couch. The apartment is supposed to be stylishly high-end, but set designer Richard Caugherty missed the mark with a beige velour couch and matching chair that look dated and tired, not modern retro. Before Trudy and Martin arrive, David suspects the reason for their visit may involve a sex or drug scandal with their now college-age daughter, Sarah, whom David describes as “a marvelous girl raised by yaks.” In fact, David speaks of her so fondly one wonders if they haven’t had a relationship. As David, Palyo is initially a bit soft-spoken and hard to hear, but he gains audible consistency in short order.
In the manner of opposites, you know Trudy will be frumpy before you even see her. Margaret Ryan aptly delivers with her dated-looking brunette bangs, pearls and floral print dress. Not only are Barbara and Trudy opposites, but so are their spouses. David exudes a flirtatious charm and has a flippant air. Dutrow appropriately captures Martin as the quintessential stereotypical accountant with no fashion sense. He immediately asks how much the paintings in their living room are worth, a question he reiterates on each visit.
While Martin yammers about the paintings, director Katya R. Shaffer beautifully captures Trudy’s personality without having her say a word. She is the sort of woman who would check for dust on lightbulbs. Fittingly, Ryan never lets Trudy smile. Trudy critiques her surroundings, refluffing the pillows and scraping something, real or imagined, off of an appetizer plate with her fingernail. She is a woman who likes to control her surroundings and is quick to judge and find flaws in others. Her moral compass is a measure for judging the rest of the world, even criticizing the price of Brie her sister serves, forcibly telling Martin it’s too expensive when he suggests they get some. Trudy’s life centers around taking care of their aging mother, Sophie (Linda Stayer), which she bemoans while also taking a sort of profligate pleasure in catering to the old lady’s excessive demands. Sophie clearly allows Trudy to feel needed as an empty-nester.
As it turns out, David’s instincts are on point. Trudy and Martin hem and haw before admitting there is sexual trouble in upstate Buffalo with young Sarah. She claims to be living with and banging two guys, one from Syracuse and the other a Peruvian. Martin’s bumbling attempts to narrate the story are unconsciously funny as he references Sarah’s “menagerie,” which Barbara lightly corrects to “ménage a trois.” Given David and Barbara are childless, their advice to let this run its course as normal college sexual exploration is quickly disregarded. In fact, Trudy takes aim at David and Barbara, blaming Sarah’s sexual proclivities on “that filthy Picasso show” they took her to. Art takes the arrow, not their overly protective parenting that has resulted in rebellion now that Sarah is out from their suffocating shadow. Helicopter parents they are, they need to rush up and intervene, which (mic drop) means dear old mom needs to be rehomed with David and Barbara.
Shaffer makes Sophie’s first entrance memorable. Barbara is on the phone with David and ominously references Hemingway in saying, “Do not ask for whom the walker thumps.” We hear Sophie clumping down the hall before we see her, and she appears in a pastel pink housecoat and pink chenille slippers. A cloth Crown Royal bag full of sourball candies swings from the front of her walker. She’s clearly a domineering force, yet there’s a laughable ridiculousness to it all. Linda Stayer as Sophie nicely wraps her mouth into an expression that seems permanently downturned by a steady diet of sourballs. Like Trudy, she nitpicks and critiques, but she veers from that path as the story progresses.
Social Security has many moments of easy laughter while showing the desire to love, be loved, and awaken intimacy remains constant no matter what phase of life you’re in. As Barbara quips to end the play as she approaches her husband for a makeout session on the couch, “The fire never does go out.”
Apple Hill Playhouse’s production of Social Security continues through May 26th. For more details, visit Apple Hill Playhouse online.
Categories: Archived Reviews