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Elizabeth Dement, Christina Masciotti, T. Ryder Smith, Paul Lazar and Cynthia Hopkins in rehearsal. (Photo by Maria Baranova)
Elizabeth Dement, Christina Masciotti, T. Ryder Smith, Paul Lazar and Cynthia Hopkins in rehearsal. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

The Cruel Humanity and Danger of ‘Social Security’

Christina Masciotti’s uneasily naturalistic play depicts a factory worker fallen on hard times and caught between two contrasting neighbors.

Bringing together a retired pretzel factory worker, a nefarious landlord and a well-meaning shiatsu therapist might sound like the setup for a joke. But Christina Masciotti’s Social Security, which centers around three such individuals and opens Feb. 25 at the Bushwick Starr, doesn’t dwell in the land of sketch comedy.

“There’s a cruel humanity to the play that I find entirely true to life,” declares Paul Lazar, the production’s director. “I feel I am in the presence of a kind of language that is at once entirely real and entirely heightened.” Masciotti’s previous works—Vision Disturbance (2010), about a patient and an eye doctor, and Adult (2013), which featured a college freshman and her gun-loving father—have also employed a curious, left-of-center language mix that is both poetic and spot-on, and achieves simultaneously eerie, hilarious and heartbreaking effects.

In Social Security, June, the retired pretzel factory worker, finds herself deaf and widowed after 40 years at her job and looks to two of her neighbors for support—but she’s forced to toggle between these two forces as they push her further toward danger.

“There’s sort of an uneasiness to the naturalism in my work,” Masciotti admits. “What I’m trying to do is ultimately bring the audience as close as possible to the characters. Line by line, I’m listening to a precise authenticity of a voice so that the audience can’t sit back and judge it. I want to dull the awareness that this thing was actually written. It should seem like I was in the corner overhearing the whole thing.”

Though Masciotti draws inspiration from people she knows in real life (Social Security’s shiatsu therapist is a younger version of her mother), the play isn’t a docudrama; nor is the text pulled from real-life interviews. Rather, Masciotti’s observations become the fodder for character studies, and from there she introduces fictionalized circumstances and events that challenge the characters.

“I want to know down to the syllable what a person would say in a situation,” she avows. “I’ve tried to write characters out of thin air, but that never gets the right fullness. I take solace in the work of Spalding Gray, who never made anything up either.”

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