Social Security/Back to the Nest | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Social Security/Back to the Nest


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Avenue Theatre


Realism Update Theatre

at the Avenue Theatre

Andrew Bergman's Social Security has flaws enough to hobble the best of theater companies. The characters are cartoon thin: everyone is given an occupation and one stereotypical trait. David, the wealthy art dealer, is an urbane wisecracker. His wife Barbara, who works at David's gallery, is an equally urbane Nora to his Nick. Martin, Barbara's brother-in-law, is a mind-numbingly literal accountant, and his wife Trudy is a sexually repressed hausfrau.

Bergman's shallow story merely skirts reality: an aged, kvetching mother makes her children's lives hell until she falls in love with a famous elderly artist. It's no wonder Bergman is best known as a screenwriter of silly Hollywood comedies: The Freshman, The In-Laws, So Fine.

Still, when National Jewish Theater did Social Security a couple years back, the production had enough charm and polish to make the play entertaining, if not substantial. I wish I could say the same about Avenue Theatre's current production. But there are so many elemental things wrong with it, it doesn't matter that Bergman's work is shallow. A deeper, more thoughtful comedy, with the same cast and director, would hardly have come off better.

To begin with, the production provides almost no dramatic tension. Lines are read without emphasis. Actors' faces go blank when they're not speaking. No one seems to listen when spoken to. Everyone more or less knows the lines, and no one trips over the furniture, but of the seven actors in the show only Michael Wasserman as David and Roma Mann as Mom play their roles as if they were imitating real people.

Stephanie Weinberg as Barbara seems particularly out of her element on the stage. She mumbles key lines, pauses awkwardly while delivering punch lines--"Do not ask for whom the, uh, walker thumps. [Long pause.] It thumps for thee"--and generally talks, moves, and acts in a way wholly unlike what you might expect from the witty wife of a sophisticated gallery owner. Such a botched performance would really stick out in most productions. In director Hyman Mann's ultrarough offering, however, Weinberg's moments of awkwardness are merely par for the course. Arthur Weinberg as the accountant brother-in-law delivers all his lines with the same bland facial expression, with the result that when he's supposed to be angry he looks calm, even bored.

Even the strongest performances are nothing to write home about. Wasserman's gentle, wry persona is so much at odds with his character's caustic and cynical wit that not a single bitter one-liner comes off. When David quips to his cheapskate brother-in-law that he bought the brie "on time," Wasserman delivers the line with so little sarcasm that if I didn't know the play I would have thought he was serious. And Mann seems too strong and able-bodied early on to pass for the walker-bound mother. She doesn't even use the walker so much as carry it from place to place.

Later, when love has given Mann's character a new lease on life, she seems more at home. In fact, Mann's transformation into a bubbly social butterfly is one of the show's few redeeming features, guaranteeing a satisfying ending to what has been so far a dreary one-and-a-half acts.

The night I saw Social Security the Avenue Theatre reeked of mothballs and attic air, as if the building itself were commenting on Hyman Mann's stale production. I'm thankful the building did not excrete a smell appropriate to Realism Update Theatre's production of Christina Athanasiades's new play, Back to the Nest, also at the Avenue Theatre. If it had, we in the audience would have suffered an olfactory assault to rival the aroma of an outhouse on a hot July day.

The fault lies almost entirely with Athanasiades's silly, melodramatic, utterly unbelievable play, about a spoiled woman in her 20s who returns home to her family "for financial reasons" and immediately sets about driving them crazy so she can inherit the house, sell it, and open an ad agency.

True, the production does contain some of the sloppiest, most halfhearted, most unprofessional acting I've seen this season. For some reason director Roger Dale never saw fit to correct Amy Barber's overacting, Christine Irwin's too-quiet delivery, or Michael Shaneyfelt's tendency to look back over his shoulder as he exits. But I sincerely doubt that a better cast and director could have done anything more with Athanasiades's play.

To begin with, Back to the Nest just takes too long to get going. A good half-hour passes before we even get an inkling of where the story is headed: instead we watch Fred and Laurie Larsen sitting on their couch, discussing in excruciating detail how old they are, what they do for a living, how many kids they have, whether they should dip into their savings to buy a car, and why it was or was not a good idea to give their daughter Genevieve so much money to get started in advertising in California.

I can imagine that a playwright with a flair for comedy might have been able to reveal this information--most of which isn't essential to the story anyway--in an interesting, entertaining manner. But Athanasiades seems determined to do just the opposite: her characters say in three lines what other writers would have them say in one. Which means that the audience is two or three steps ahead of the characters every beat of the story.

To make matters worse, much of the dialogue is clotted with the obvious and the stale. You can't help but wonder what kind of married couple, outside of a foreign-language textbook, feel compelled to repeat to each other, without a hint of irony, such silly, information-free comments as "They say that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," "I don't like to use our savings unless it's absolutely necessary," and "Things are different these days."

Such lapses in the dialogue might be forgivable if the story made any sense, or if the characters were credible or interesting. But it doesn't and they aren't. Fred and Laurie are as dull as the cliches they spout. Genevieve is painted as such an absolute monster--spoiled, selfish, and pathologically manipulative--that there's no possibility of getting to know the woman behind the villain. The playwright never gives any explanation of how such sweet, bland parents could spawn a child so insensitive she thinks nothing of telling her mother she has a diaphragm because it's "the easiest way to fuck," or of revealing to her boyfriend that she lost her job because "they accused me of fu--of having sex in the office."

Then again, Athanasiades leaves plenty of questions unanswered in her play. But the most pressing is: How did this script get a production?

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