Andrew Bergman is a writer who got his big Hollywood break collaborating with Mel Brooks on Blazing Saddles. His wicked sense of humor was already manifest in his Broadway play Social Security, about a sophisticated, childless couple who find themselves unexpectedly saddled with the wife's 78-year-old mother.
First time around, the play was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Marlo Thomas and Ron Silver as the urbane art dealers Barbara and David Kahn. The decision to cast this couple as slightly older in the current California Conservatory production is an interesting one, and it's great because it reinforces one of the show's larger ideas, that affection, romantic love and, yes, sex, aren't limited to the young.
Into the Kahns' chichi Manhattan apartment tumble Barbara's clenchingly square sister Trudy and Trudy's husband Martin. They're in the middle of a family emergency, and need to leave matriarch Sophie with the Kahns until things are settled. Giggling behind their hands, they exit stage left as the onerous Sophie thunks balefully in, wielding her walker like an ancient siege engine.
Bergman's dialogue is hilarious, and he has a knack for creating extreme situations (there are several examples of people walking into the apartment at the most inopportune moments, usually because someone is in his or her underwear). Director Greg Schuh works the script for all available humor. So while the characters of Trudy and Martin (dressed in matching drab tones) are really caricatures, Betty Grandis and her praying-mantis physical tension is still really funny, and Robert Hamm's lugubrious, nasal Martin still has nice sympathetic moments. Grandis has some wonderful little stage business -- for example, after we've watched Barbara compulsively clean and arrange the coffee table and very deliberately put out a coaster, Trudy sets her glass down on the cover of a book about Monet, and hides a bit of cheese she doesn't like in the sofa cushions.
Nancy Madden as Barbara has good control of the first act's tension. By the time Trudy shows up, we're in a lather right along with her, wondering what's so awful that Trudy and Martin need to stop by right away. She also has the perfect wry voice for lines like "Ask not for whom the walker thumps, it thumps for thee." She has nice chemistry with Robert Rossman as David, a character interesting for his implied amorality -- what man refers to his niece, "A spectacular, miraculous girl, raised by a pair of yaks," as lubricious and full-breasted? It's a dash of ickiness that gives the character some depth.
Catherine Bucher as Sophie, the elderly mother who isn't anxious to go back to Minneola where Trudy has her mother's death notices all written out and filed in the recipe box under "casseroles," is vaguely reminiscent of the late, great Madeline Kahn. Spitting out half-eaten sourballs into the plants, shucking her housedress at the wrong time, and generally irritating her family, it turns out that Sophie is actually the wisest of the batch.
On the surface, this is a pretty fluffy work, and the ending is a bit pat, what with all the goo about how "the fire [of love] still burns." But there are moments that make deeper points -- for example, that Sophie's contrariness is a direct response to the way she's being treated by Trudy and Martin, who have virtually imprisoned her. In fact, Sophie isn't really that bad, but Bergman is using her to illustrate a prevalent dynamic between mothers and daughters -- namely the way the former will always embarrass the latter, and sometimes glory in so doing. Loaded with surprise twists, groan-inducing jokes, and family tension, this one is an affectionate little gem for California Conservatory.
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