CALLING "Social Security" a comedy, or even a play, is overstating the case by quite a bit. This inconsistent, inconsequential comedy, making its pre-Broadway debut at the National Theater, squanders the considerable talents of director Mike Nichols and actors Marlo Thomas and Ron Silver as it wastes the time of the audience, who may not feel like paying Broadway prices for "cute."
A glance at playwright Andrew Bergman's credits should remove any element of surprise about the show's meager content: You don't expect subtlety or logic from the author of "Blazing Saddles" and an "Oh God" sequel. You might, however, expect more solid laughs.
Strictly from sitcom, "Social Security" is aimed at a predominantly New York Jewish Yupper-middle class crowd, which will presumably recognize and applaud the restaurant and department storenames ostentatiously dropped throughout.
Bergman introduces us abruptly to Barbara and David Kahn, art dealers who inhabit a Tony Walton-designed coral pink and rosewood apartment on the East Side. Barbara's sister and brother-and-law, Trudy and Martin, Mineola suburbanites, drop in to fret about their daughter, who is apparently discovering sex with a vengeance while at college in Buffalo. They're off to check up on her, so Barbara's elderly, unhappy mother, Sophie Greengrass, is deposited "like a package from Altmans."
Burdened with mom, Barbara and David invite 100-year-old Maurice Koenig, "the world's greatest painter," to dinner. Surprise, surprise: the two adorable old folks fall in love, he paints her portrait (this is the world's greatest painter?) and fly off to Cap d'Antibes.
On top of being affrontingly half-baked, "Social Security" is unpleasantly smug about the superiority of city dwellers (next to bumpkin suburbanites), treats the aging with disrespect and smirks sophomorically at the college daughter's sex life.
You can see more of Marlo Thomas in any 30-minute rerun of "That Girl." Looking gaunt and jittery, perhaps because she's been given star billing with so very little to do, Thomas frets herself into a frenzy onstage to give her character some appearance of substance. Ron Silver takes the more sensible approach, walking through it effortlessly with his natural flippancy.
In the unenviable roles of the harried suburban couple, Joanna Gleason and Kenneth Welsh acquit themselves with a degree of dignity not afforded them in the script. Mother Sophie, played by Olympia Dukakis, is a schizophrenic creation, entering as a spectral grandmother out of Beckett, and reappearing at play's end like an octogenarian reincarnation of Paloma Picasso.
At 90 minutes plus intermission -- the length of the average made-for-TV movie -- "Social Security" doesn't seem designed to appeal to theatergoers at al Rather, it looks more like an excuse for getting quickly in and out of the theater in time for dinner. They've even thoughtfully recommended a restaurant.
SOCIAL SECURITY -- At the National Theater through March 22.