BWW Review: SOCIAL SECURITY at Oyster Mill Playhouse
Every so often, a show comes along that manages to surprise even the most unlikely of theatre-goers. Shows that seem geared towards a certain audience sometimes prove themselves able to entertain a vast array of tastes, more than they may have expected. This is the case of SOCIAL SECURITY at Oyster Mill Playhouse, a play aimed to tickle the funny bones of an older crowd that still succeeds in getting a laugh from all ages.
SOCIAL SECURITY, written by Andrew Bergman, first opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on April 17th, 1986. The show saw a run of 388 performances, and featured actors such as Marlo Thomas, Ron Silver, Joanna Gleason, and Olympia Dukakis in the original cast. This Broadway production was recognized by the Drama Desk Awards for Gleason's performance as an Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play as well as for T0ny Walton's Outstanding Set Design. SOCIAL SECURITY follows David and Barbara Kahn, wealthy owners of a popular art gallery in Manhattan, who find their world upended when Barbara's cookie-cutter sister Trudy and her husband Martin arrive for a sudden visit. They reveal that they are headed to Buffalo to investigate the promiscuous behavior of their daughter, and that Barbara and David Are now responsible for the care of Barbara's difficult mother, Sophie Greengrass. The show mixes elements of humor and family, and the production put on by Oyster Mill Playhouse is no exception.
David and Barbara Kahn are portrayed by Craig Stouffer and Susan Danowitz respectively, and each bring a certain power and punch to their roles that make them easy to sympathize with and be entertained by throughout the show. Stouffer's David is a combination of a man who's driven by business while also appreciating a bit of dry humor. Stouffer uses this knowledge of his character to his advantage and expertly walks the line between emotion and comedic timing, the latter being some of the best in the show. His David is a realistic, practical, and honest man, one who sees situations for what they are rather than their hypotheticals. Stouffer is perhaps the most enjoyable onstage; he facilitates the wonderfully candid and unfiltered nature of his character with a wealthy of energy and a naturalistic acting style that showcases his ability quite nicely, and often wins a laugh for his efforts. David's state of being throughout the show ranges from playful to concerned to frustrated beyond imagining, and Stouffer is in tune which each one of this character's mindsets.
Stouffer is excellent on his own, but shines even brighter when paired with Susan Danowitz's Barbara. She is opinionated, strong-willed, and just as honest as her husband, but seems to depend more upon the judgement of others. While sporting an acting style equally as realistic as Stouffer, Danowitz is in possession of physicality and sophistication galore from the very beginning. This makes her irritation towards her mother and sister even more apparent, especially when Barbara begins to be pushed to her limits. Danowitz proves herself to be just as versatile as Stouffer while still remaining true to every aspect of her character, making both her easy confidence and utter despair equally believable. Her acting style is just the right mixture of subdued and larger than life when called for, making it both genuine and perfect for the stage. She and Stouffer work wonderfully together onstage, taking two vibrant and colorful characters and thrusting them into a marriage that seems straight out of a classic TV sitcom.
Their characters are of similar views and attitudes, and are both obviously career-driven. While occasionally at odds with each other, they are often united by their modern, forward-thinking characteristics and New York toughness. Both actors are clearly very comfortable with each other, and this comfort results in a natural and dynamic relationship. David and Barbara's tense moments, which are humorously akin to parents arguing over a child misbehaving in public, are just as satisfying as their more tender interactions. They are clearly a Manhattan power couple, and this clashes successfully with Barbara's sister and her husband.
Trudy and Martin Heyman are played by Melissa Hurwitz and Spurgeon Davis, and they are able to portray a couple that almost completely juxtaposes Stouffer and Danowitz. Trudy as played by Hurwitz is simple and frugal, a woman who has given up her life for the care of her mother that Barbara has seemingly been unwilling to provide. Hurwitz's Trudy is uptight, straight-laced, and worrisome, yet possesses a bit of a pretentious attitude. She is righteous and indignant, as though she has spent her entire life resenting Barbara for her high-maintenance lifestyle, which she most likely has. Both actors work well to play up this angle of juxtaposition, and their efforts pay off to emphasize the tension between them. Trudy has been the obedient child, but has obviously reached her limits with her family. Her patience has been tried, and she expresses this frustration by acting as condescending and judgemental as she can even while asking for a favor. Hurwitz understands these aspects of Trudy quite well, especially the more snobby attitudes of her character, but could benefit from pushing her anger just a bit further for a slightly more convincing portrayal.
Davis's Martin is like many other father figures, a focused and matter-of-fact man. He wants the best for his family and is set in his traditional ways, much like Trudy. However, he sometimes does not seem to possess as much of a distinct personality, and is occasionally a bit static in his line delivery and inflection. That being said, he works well with Hurwitz to form a couple comprised of plain yet prideful individuals, easily wound up but ultimately worried (if overly-attached) parents who want to secure themselves of their daughter's well-being. They are very nearly polar opposites of David and Barbara; they frown upon the upscale lifestyle their in-laws partake in, and are far from shy when it comes to expressing these opinions. In addition, they both seem to have no qualms when it comes to pawning off Sophie to David and Barbara, and in fact appear to take quite a bit of pleasure in doing so. For the majority of their time onstage, however, Trudy and Martin are purposefully dull, a small town couple that can't begin to understand city living. However, and perhaps this is due to the nature of their characters, both Hurwitz and Davis could afford to add a bit more energy to their performances.
SOCIAL SECURITY revolves around the dread both couples feel when faced against the wrath of Sophie Greengrass, and E.K. Weitzel's portrayal lives up to the expectations centered around her character. Weitzel's Sophie is bitter and frumpy from the very start, and just as opinionated and loud-spoken as her daughters. She also displays just as much of a judgemental nature, with what appears to be an unsustainable need to critique everything in sight. Coupled with an affinity for laying on the guilt, Weitzel brings to the table a Sophie that is reminiscent of difficult mothers in both fiction and reality alike. She and Danowitz Barbara engage in comedic yet relatable arguments, ones that we've seen plenty of times before but still find enjoyable in this incarnation. Weitzel's Sophie is stubborn to the core, and while often incredibly amusing, can sometimes be a bit over dramatic in her efforts to create a difficult old woman. This being sad, Weitzel is much more successful than not, and we as an audience find ourselves laughing and shaking our heads at her antics, some of which seem almost sitcom-like. Sophie is unpredictable and always full of surprises, and this is a characteristic that wins over the audience despite her tenacious attitude.
Sophie's very nature, however, changes when she meets acclaimed artist Maurice Koening, played by Charles "Smitty" Smith. She is visibly wooed by his calm, sophisticaTEd Mannerisms, and Smith does an excellent job in creating a man who is not only filled with class, but also with understanding. He is perhaps the first character in the show to refrain from immediate judgements, and the audience loves him for it. He is a refreshing change from the loud, bursting characters we have come to know, and Smith uses this knowledge to his advantage. He inspires a change in Sophie once thought impossible, and it is wonderful to see her transition. While her earlier erratic behavior does wonders for the comedic elements of the show, a tame, wise Sophie is equally as appreciated and enjoyable.
Each actor does their part to keep this relatively short comedy moving, building and sustaining interest throughout the entire show. The characters are lively and entertaining, and many are brought to life wonderfully by thoroughly developed performances. It is evident that many hours of time and dedications were thrust into SOCIAL SECURITY, and the efforts of the cast and crew were not in vain. Many of these actors are seasoned in their craft, and this is evident by the caliber of the majority of the performances. SOCIAL SECURITY is a story of family and surprises of all kinds, proving that, in the words of Sophie Greengrass, "you never know when things will happen."
Presented by Oyster Mill Playhouse through June 18th. Next is HOLLYWOOD ARMS. Visit oystermill.com.
Photo Credit: Rosie Turner