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Social Security: Theater review by Helen Shaw
A woman putters around the stage, adjusting a paper grocery bag from Giant, plugging in a clock radio. We can hear an old woman's voice nattering away on a recording (“And then he took all the black forks! You know my black forks”), and slowly—as she dons a saggy bra and wig—young Elizabeth Dement becomes 80-year-old June, waddling slightly in her baggy shorts and curly gray ’do. Under her breath, Dement takes over June's running patter, picking up from the real recording. In a way, this is what playwright Christina Masciotti has done in the sly comic thriller Social Security, using her keen ear for inflection, malapropism and dialect to convert her own mother's actual neighbor into a wonderful stage creation.
June recently lost her husband to cancer, but she's surrounded by people who seem willing to help. Her disgraced-podiatrist landlord, the mustachioed Wayne (T. Ryder Smith), and her massage-therapist neighbor Sissy (Cynthia Hopkins) drop by constantly, so they can take June to get groceries (“Oh! We should get them Jell-Os with the fruit in 'em!”) or to the bank to cash her social-security checks. They're willing to lean in close to June, who is deaf as a post, writing her notes and negotiating her strangely prickly dependence. The comedy is immediate, but the drama emerges imperceptibly, a slowly dawning realization that Wayne's generosity isn't all it seems. “He grew up in a cave by wolves,” warns Sissy. “Very quiet, very low-key wolves.”
As counterpoint to the naturalistic dialogue, director Paul Lazar has the actors move in stylized gestures: Hopkins dashes in circles around an easy chair; Smith dismounts a table in the wriggly, legless way an alligator would. The performers (all veterans of movement-theater work) handle this juxtaposition with droll grace; in fact, all three do some of their best work here. Even if you've seen Hopkins elsewhere, you might not have known she was capable of this level of cinematic realism; if you've known Dement as a dancer, you'll be floored by her confidence and deftly funny touch here.
Masciotti's writing is superb, simultaneously unforced and lyrical. As in Vision Disturbance, she does a magic trick, in which language as it is spoken somehow becomes poetry. Sissy, her Greek accent pushing her English into lovely shapes, mutters, “Life is too soon…too sure? Too short,” as she tries to nudge the dawdling June into action. And Masciotti deserves a prize for putting a retired pretzel-machine worker center stage, for figuring a way to write an entire play about how money changes hands in America that seems truthful and wry.
I love The Bushwick Starr. It's one of the experimental scene's best jewel boxes—or, more accurately, it's a good old-fashioned, rough-hewn wooden box, which sets off jewels to best advantage. But in some ways, I regret that our theater economy is so topsy-turvy that such jewels, such rubies beyond price, are here, up steep stairs in Bushwick and selling tickets for only $18 a pop. Cynthia Hopkins is one of the best performers in the city—her own music-theater creations (Must Don't Whip 'Um, among others) changed the form. Elizabeth Dement is a serious midcareer dancer-performer, last seen at BAM. And diabolical T. Ryder Smith—the creepier John Waters, the oozier Steve Buscemi—is easily on my 10 Best Actors Alive list. (I keep it on a Post-it.)
But okay. There should be no reason to complain that a downtown supergroup is performing a gorgeously pitched, affordable show, where the audience can snuggle right up against them in a welcoming venue. I spend a lot of time whining that great work goes unseen because it costs too much (hello, Hamilton) or plays too short a time (Gob Squad, you scamps) or has some flaw in execution. Now New York's weird tendency to undervalue its treasures is actually working in your favor. You must go! And how nice that Social Security makes it easy for you: A terrific production has written you a check, and you just need to take the L train out to Jefferson to cash it.—Helen Shaw
The Bushwick Starr (see Off-Off Broadway). By Christina Masciotti. Directed by Paul Lazar. With Elizabeth Dement, T. Ryder Smith, Cynthia Hopkins. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.