Music

There’s More to Christina Masciotti’s Social Security Than Meets the Ear

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“Everything happens to us. The good ones,” June (Elizabeth Dement) complains. That’s how it goes in old age: The body starts to fail and the mind can become susceptible. You start
to catalog life’s deficiencies and a day can seem like a marathon of tribulations.
For June, a Pennsylvania widow who used to run the machines in a pretzel factory, those woes include deafness, high blood pressure, and a slowing walk.

She contends with other misfortunes: confusing new rules at the bank where she cashes her checks. Baffling paperwork. An apartment in disrepair. Stifling summer heat. Her doctor wants to change her diet. And her manipulative landlord Wayne
(T. Ryder Smith) pinches pennies and filches from her Social Security payouts
to fuel his own habits.

Christina Masciotti’s Social Security, a studious new play at the Bushwick Starr, trains our attention on this faltering, self-absorbed heroine for most of its 90 minutes. June mumbles and frets, speaking sometimes inaudibly to herself and then too loudly to others. We listen to her
monologic wellspring of domestic, material obsessions — an immersion into her consciousness that becomes a neo-
expressionist étude of blue-collar struggle. With all the canned groceries and an ever-present muffled background soundtrack by Ben Williams, we could be back in the 1970s watching a Franz Xaver Kroetz drama of anguished kitchen-oven realism. Closer to home, the play returns to territory explored by María Irene Fornés, who recharted American naturalism starting in the 1960s, fusing dark domestic relationships and poverty themes with language experiments.

Masciotti’s earlier play Vision Disturbance explored very similar social psychology but with more power and sharper form. (Experimental director Richard Maxwell created that 2010 production with his signature use of muted affect.) Two contradictory impulses run through Social Security: On one hand the playwright puts everyday language and characters onstage and steeps us in apparently banal thoughts to show human drives
underneath. At the same time, Masciotti spins a straightforward narrative. A triangle emerges in which June’s neighbor Sissy (Cynthia Hopkins), a Greek massage therapist, comes to her elder’s aid. Until the dramatist inserts a traditional plot
device late in the play — an “accidental death” insurance policy that might decide the protagonist’s fate — Social Security shares character information with subtlety. We learn of Sissy’s good heart and Wayne’s villainy, and we observe, repeatedly, how the preoccupied and pragmatic June fails to acknowledge either.

Director Paul Lazar brings a gestural life to his staging, giving the performers’ choreographed movements and steps a dance-theater feel. (The actors might lie face-down on the carpeting or splay themselves sculpturally along the wall, embodying the submerged mood of a scene.) The cast, all downtown theater veterans, walk a thin line between character types and expressive depth — especially Dement, who shuffles around the set in a wig and oversize specs while talking nonstop. But in the dramatically forced final scenes, caricature prevails. Wayne’s prolonged meltdown and ultimate showdown with Sissy overshadow the more nuanced early detail.

Despite the limitations, Masciotti seems poised to coax American domestic drama into rigorous and unsettling terrain, and her collaborations with bold
directors make for a promising start. Pay heed to a neglected woman’s mutterings, the playwright implies, and you might be surprised by what you hear.