Benefactors

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 1, 2011

    Review by Tulis McCall
    (8 Apr 2011)

    Jane (Vivienne Benesch) begins this play telling us, "You look back in life and there is a great chain of cloud-shadows moving over the earth behind you. All the sharp bright landscape you've just traveled through has gone grey and graceless." And right away you know what you are in for. Except you don't, because Michael Frayn keeps changing the playing field with sleight of hand.

    Two couples, Jane and David (Daniel Jenkins) and Sheila (Deanne Lorette) and Colin (Stephen Barker Turner), live outside London in a middle class neighborhood. The time is the 1980's or so from the vantage point of the story tellers, but the tale itself begins in 1968. Although the tale focuses on Jane and David, it is Sheila who remembers the date, because Sheila is a parasite. Often silent and always apologetic to the point of driving everyone else (including the audience) mad, Sheila lives across the suburban street from Jane and David with Colin and their two children. Her own identity and life are such a frantic collection of doubts that she depends on the kindness of strangers to shore her up. And as she depends on them for support, they depend on her for validation.

    The masterful turn here is that Frayn gives us two dysfunctional couples who think that they are keeping the other from falling apart. In this neighborhood doors are left unlocked and neighbors come and go at will. For the most part it is Colin and Sheila who come visit, leaving the children at home and replacing them with a baby monitor. Their presence begins to grate on David, who is an architect working often from home, as well as Jane, who works for David part time. Sheila especially annoys them so much that Jane hires her to be a general assistant. Playing field side-change.

    As Sheila moves into the lives of her neighbors, she moves out of her own. She pays less and less attention to her husband and actually forgets about her children. Eventually she leaves Colin all together and moves in with Jane and David. This is because she has fallen in love with David who is too focused on himself and his latest project, Basuto Road, to notice. Basuto Road a run down low income enclave where David hopes to build a monument to humanity. Old run-down homes with lower class folk will simply have to be moved, and a new Utopian vision, complete with skyscrapers, will emerge. It is this project that makes Sheila think David is a genius. And it is this development that gives Colin a raison d'être. He will leave his neighborhood, become a squatter in Basuto Road and fight David and everything he represents. Colin will take his journalistic background and put it to use defending the defenseless.

    The result is that everyone is dashed against the rocks, and no one comes out happy or whole.

    There is extraordinary depth in this story. It is a play that glows in the light of the British fascination with words, words, words. This production, however, is a bit on the mono-tone side. Beginning with the sets and the costumes – particularly those of the women – this production is visually and technically filled with lead. The set is a sort of cinder block container and the costumes, although the play takes place over several years, do not change. The walls are bare. The lighting is dim. I understand this to be part of the statement of the play itself, but too much dull is, well, dull.

    Much cannot be said for Carl Forsman's direction. It is clear that a great deal of care and devotion have been given to this play, but the actors are hobbled by lackluster blocking and action. Around Jane and David's kitchen table Jane is reduced to making one pot of coffee after another during the day – but there are no windows so we can only tell by the beverages – and David pours juice glass after juice glass of wine in the evening. Sheila is the most active character – again a Frayn twist - with a passive/aggressive MOA. But Ms. Lorette finds only a few notes to play in her "I'm So Sorry" Aria. As a result the other characters who orbit around Sheila must work mightily to add a bit of color that will modify the landscape.

    This is the intriguing story of a dismal situation in England. The Beatles were still singing but were on drugs of course. Nixon was about to be elected. The Vietnam war was raging. All of that sturm and drang can be felt in the text and in much of the mostly fine acting in this play. But when all is said and done, this is a mostly mild production of a play that was meant to be served with a dusting of ground glass.

    (Tulis McCall)

    "A sterling revival. ...This thoughtful revival rescues it from undeserved obscurity."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for NY Post

    "Frayn is an acute observer of human behavior. He kept my interest for two hours, and he's likely to keep yours too. ... well worth your time and attention."
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    NY Post - Back Stage