I'll bet Neil Simon had no idea he had three comedies on Broadway right now. While last night's "Social Security" at the Barrymore is the contrivance of Andrew Bergman, it is purely Simonesque in nature - except for its intensified dependence on scatological humor. The women were whooping it up the afternoon I saw it and I would think it will prove a great ladies' matinee favorite.
It's funny enough, especially in the first act. After all, Bergman is a proficient gag writer in full cry here. But in structure and characterization, it is reminiscent of Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" in dealing with a romantic attachment between a mother-in-law and an elderly artist.
Here, the two - an octogenarian named Sophie Greengrass (Olympia Dukakis) and Maurice Koenig (Stefan Schnabel), a famous painter on the eve of his 100th birthday - become commedia dell'arte figures.
Though the second act is largely given over to the development of this liaison, the central figures in Bergman's farce are art dealer David Kahn (Ron Silver) and his wife, Barbara (Marlo Thomas). Living in an apartment as inviting and replaceable as a store's window display (Tony Walton's design), they are awaiting a visit by Barbara's sister Trudy (Joanna Gleason) and her accountant husband, Martin Heyman (Kenneth Welsh).
The Heymans are bound for Buffalo in the hope of rescuing their 18-year-old daughter from an off-campus menage-a-trois whose permutations are awesome. They have also brought along the sisters' complaining mother who has been living with the Heymans. Sophie's arrival, unkempt and unsteady, brings down the first-act curtain.
With Bergman's gag-writing skill exercised at its fullest in the first half, the scene is reasonably bright. And it's brought off with commendable skill by Ron Silver, Marlo Thomas, the moralistic Gleason and her boring spouse. Mike Nichols, who can stage this kind of thing blindfolded, has elicited every nifty nuance with his clever and perfectly paced direction.
It's in the second half which is pure farce, that the playwright - with Nichols alongside - relies on every oldtimer's gag in the book.
As in some Simon comedies (like "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers"), our interest and laughs are directed toward an essentially unpleasant batch of people. But whereas Simon has delved more deeply into character as his career progressed, Bergman's characters are mere props and owe too much to the personal appeal of the interpreters. Of the six, Thomas, though professional, is the weakest link.
Costumes and lighting are well conceived for this household whose principal adornments are two expensive paintings ("blank," Sophie calls them) entirely dependent on tones, textures and, in one, a curved outline.
They are, indeed, blank. And as empty as Bergman's play once his jokes have vanished in the air.
Just when you were beginning to think you were never going to laugh again on Broadway, along comes Andrew Bergman's new play Social Security, and you realize, with a rising feeling of joy, that it is once more safe to giggle in the streets.
Indeed you can laugh out loud, joyfully, with, as it were, social security, for the play is a hoot, and, better yet, a sophisticated, even civilized hoot. It is the kind of play audiences will be flattered to be amused by, and the older folks can particularly dote on it.
The play, which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, is simple and modest enough in all conscience. It is a comedy about the life-assertive power of sex, with a few pertinent observations on the manners and mores of the New York middle class in the late 1980s.
It is odd to have a comedy about sex; most comedies at least make the pretension of being about love, or pride, or vanity, or even death. But sex?
Not for nothing does the director Mike Nichols bring the final curtain down on a scene of domestic sexual abandon to the priapic strains of the waltz from Der Rosenkavalier.
The Kahns (Marlo Thomas and Ron Silver) are trendily successful East Side art dealers. They have made their money the hard way - yearning it.
And their yearnings have led them to the fruitful pastures of minimalist art - where differences of paint texture, as they explain to the uninitiated and unimpressed, take the place of design - and a lucrative connection with one of the "certified" and bankable "great" artists of the day, Maurice Koenig (Stefan Schnabel), a man nearing his first century and bearing a more than passing resemblance to the late Maurice Chagall.
Barbara Kahn has a goody-goody nerd for a sister (Trudy, played by Joanna Gleason) and a screwed-uptight CPA (Martin, played by Kenneth Welsh) for a brother-in-law.
And living with them in Mineola she has Sophie (Olympia Dukakis), a Jewish mother who is stereotyped to the point of the archetypal. This woman doesn't just complain; she drips with complaint, like a leaky roof in a thunderstorm.
So, city- and country-cousin situation. Jokes about lifestyle abound. But very soon sex rears its rampant leg.
You see, Trudy and Martin have a teenage daughter at school just outside Buffalo. And although they try to keep tabs on her - calling her at strategic times twice a day - they fear she has taken a turn for the moral worse.
Particularly when they hear, from an ill-meaning friend, that the girl is shacked up with two men - one a Peruvian, no less - and, by her own account just "lives for sex."
What can they do but shuffle off to Buffalo to investigate? And, while they are away, how can they handle the troublesome, cantankerous Sophie, other than by dumping her lock, stock, and walker on the unprotected but not unprotesting Kahns?
Now you see what sex can do? But you ain't seen nothing yet. For sex even has geriatric ramifications, and the plot does not so much thicken as become tumescent, while everyone, almost everyone, is bug-bitten.
It is all in good fun. People might try to compare Mr. Bergman, well-known as a novelist and screenwriter (notably Blazing Saddles and the recent woefully underrated Fletch) but here making his first excursion as a playwright, with Neil Simon.
In fact Bergman's technique is far more like an Upper East Side Jewish translation of the English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, and, indeed, he cuts far more lightly than either Simon or Ayckbourn, both of whom are rather more seriously inclined.
Yet what Bergman shares with Ayckbourn is a sure nose for scenting out recognizable common human foibles.
Social Security (an oblique enough title) has only been unreeling for a minute or so before we have Miss Thomas, on hearing the vestibule warning of visitors, observing: "I hate this - that interval after the buzzing rings."
That surely strikes a chord of truth, as does Mr. Silver's confession: "I'm flip - which is another way of being shy."
Mike Nichols has directed as if the play was a souffle and he was a chef - which, of course, it is and he is.
Some of his visual business seemed a little overstressed, playing around with a talismanic family-embroidered cushion for example, or hiding (taking a leaf out of La Cage aux Folles) naughtily explicit African sculptures before the arrival of visitors.
Yet the staging is as smooth as powder on a newborn baby's bottom, and just as unexpected.
Tony Walton's scenery is lavish - '30s antique, with a cocktail cabinet purporting to have William Powell in its provenance, but somehow not as convincing as it might have been.
Nor do Ann Roth's costumes make quite the comments their characters call for; but probably both designers are delivering what Nichols ordered.
The performances are handsomely balanced and integrated. Marlo Thomas is charming as the preoccupied heroine, and Ron Silver, flip, abrasive, yet somehow attractive, proves even better as her sexually malnourished husband with hungry eyes and a revealing tongue.
The subsidiary roles are expertly cast. The acid-glinted Joanna Gleason and Kenneth Welsh (looking dazzingly dowdy) as the tight-behinded couple from long-off Long Island, Olympia Dukakis as the monstrous mother, and Stefan Schnabel as the millionaire ghetto painter, are all delicious.
One way and another I have made Social Security sound more a play to eat than to see; certainly it has more to laugh at than think about. But at its extraordinarily welcome level it sings like a song.
And there is a moral. Sex is too good a thing just to be abandoned to the abandoned. So see Social Security and get humorously recharged.
Any crackpot can risk writing a play, but it takes a genuine madman to try to concoct two acts' worth of jokes. When a play falters for a spell, the audience can always contemplate the plot or characters or themes while waiting for things to get moving again. In a potpourri of gags like ''Social Security,'' the new offering at the Barrymore, there is far less margin for sloughing off. By opting for a sitcom premise instead of a story, stock figures instead of characters and fortune-cookie messages instead of feelings, this entertainment bets all on its jokes: like a stand-up comedy act, ''Social Security'' either gets its laughs or drops dead.
The evening's talented creators, the writer Andrew Bergman and the director Mike Nichols, know the stakes, and, not surprisingly, do have their very funny innings. Mr. Bergman, the screenwriter of ''Blazing Saddles'' and ''The In-Laws,'' is one of those shrewd jokesmiths, like Mel Brooks or Larry Gelbart, who knows just what brand name of car can detonate an otherwise negligible punch line or just what a Jewish mother might remember most about the cuisine at Lutece. At his best in ''Social Security,'' Mr. Bergman also imagines how a nebbishy accountant would garble his college-age daughter's slang terminology for oral sex, or how the accountant's wife might sanction the same child's sexual proclivities when performed with a rabbinical student. For his part, Mr. Nichols shows off a previously undisclosed flair for slapstick sequences in which arthritic octo- and nonagenarians struggle to negotiate steps or sit down on a couch.
There are some other deliciously low gags, too, but the real question is whether they are generated in sufficient quantity to sustain two brief acts. Theatergoers with a Pavlovian relish for lines mentioning ''bazooms,'' Long Island, Macy's White Sale and gefilte fish may ignore the big duds (including one utterly irrelevant wisecrack about 20th Century-Fox) and decide that ''Social Security'' narrowly squeaks by. Those who feel that man cannot live by gefilte fish, let alone bazooms, alone, may share my conclusion that this effort is far closer to the spotty, domesticated Bergman screenplays for ''Fletch'' and ''So Fine'' than the continuously uproarious ''In-Laws.'' Mr. Nichols isn't at top form, either: by miscasting one major role, he has arguably robbed the writer of some of his rightful laughs.
The miscast performer is Marlo Thomas, who may have taken Act II's gratuitously sober encomiums to sexual fulfillment even more seriously than the author; she seems to be laboring under the misimpression she's appearing in ''Hedda Gabler.'' Her actual role is that of Barbara Kahn, who, with her husband (Ron Silver), runs a 57th Street art gallery of dubious sophistication. As propelled by shopworn situations reminiscent of ''Where's Poppa?'' (in Act I) and ''Barefoot in the Park'' (in Act II), the Kahns fly into panic when Barbara's aged mother (Olympia Dukakis) threatens to move into their fancy East Side apartment for an extended stay. Miss Thomas, who behaves as if pouting and crisp vocal projection were the sum of comic acting, rarely looks at others or lets a smile cross her impassive mask of a face. We never even believe that she's Mr. Silver's wife or Miss Dukakis's daughter. Her fits of nutty despair -among them, a masticatory encounter with the living room drapes -come off as abject depression rather than, as seemingly intended, maniacal farce.
The shortfall in the star's performance is brought into acute relief by the sharp professionals around her. The always reliable Mr. Silver not only has the evening's dirtiest lines, but he also knows how to turn every one of them into a perfectly timed sneak attack on an audience's pretensions to good taste. The remarkable Joanna Gleason, as Barbara's prudish and eternally disapproving sister from Mineola, once again demonstrates her ability to turn every gesture into a funny statement of character - and every character into a distinct theatrical creation. In the past year, this actress's varied repertory has already included the snotty English neighbor in ''Joe Egg,'' the has-been Broadway star in ''It's Only a Play'' and the startled wife of a potential artificial inseminator in ''Hannah and Her Sisters.''
Armed with a walker and a running gag involving sourballs, Miss Dukakis is a formidable paragon of guilt-inflicting piety as the mother, even when she must contentiously deliver an unimpeachable sermon (on loan from ''I'm Not Rappaport''?) about a senior citizen's right to be ''alive.'' Stefan Schnabel is also charming as a still older character, a painter we are meant to confuse with Chagall. While Kenneth Welsh is not used to full advantage as Barbara's milquetoast brother-in-law the accountant, he's still amusing when rejecting a lime for his Tab as if it were an invitation to hell.
In keeping with the usual panache of Mike Nichols productions, the set designer Tony Walton has provided a terminally trendy East Side living room that, like Ann Roth's costumes, cracks its own jokes. (Not the least of Mr. Walton's witty contributions is a painting that parodies Chagall and Alex Katz in a single blow.) But just as one wonders why Mr. Bergman has too often tamed his outrageous instincts in his theatrical debut, so it's unclear why Mr. Nichols suddenly aspires to the sledgehammer directorial style of Broadway entries like ''Doubles'' and the female ''Odd Couple.'' This evening contains two scenes in which characters are caught in their underwear, and yet such are the lax standards that neither Mr. Bergman nor Mr. Nichols can be bothered to top the first with an inspired variation of writing or staging in the second. In ''Social Security,'' two experts at comedy, like their embarrassed characters, are to be found at half-mast.