Thursday, July 7, 2011

Much Food for Thought - "Benefactors"

By Judd Hollander

Extending a helping hand can sometimes have dangerous repercussions, as powerfully shown in the very interesting and involving revival of Michael Frayn's Benefactors by the Keen Company.

In early 1970s London, architect David (Daniel Jenkins) and wife Jane (Vivienne Benesch), who helps with his business, frequently entertain their neighbors Colin (Stephen Barker Turner) and Sheila (Deanne Lorette). In fact, Colin and Sheila are around more often than not; having meals together, bringing their kids by after school, etc. While David is the most conservative of the group, Colin is more radical thinking, the two often having far-ranging discussions about one subject or another, as Jane looks on bemusedly and Sheila is pretty much silent. Things change dramatically when Sheila is offered a job as David's secretary. After a series of false starts where she makes one mistake after another, she eventually become quite adept at the arrangement, becoming so invaluable she begins to insinuate herself into David's life. At the same time her relationship with Colin becomes more and more strained.

While all this is happening, David gets a contract to renovate (i.e. pull down) a large swath of aging and dilapidated homes and replace them with new housing. However as more and more bureaucratic obstacles are added to make the plan acceptable to the various competing interests, he finds he must build the structures much higher than originally planned in order to keep them economically feasible. This sends Colin off the deep end and results in him becoming a squatter in one of the soon to be demolished homes as he begins to publicly rail against the project. Soon Jane finds herself acting as the go-between between Colin and David, while her husband and Sheila are growing ever closer, even if David doesn't realize it.

An intriguing concept to be sure, but what makes it really interesting are the framing devices which have the various characters recalling events more than a decade later and looking back on what happened during this period when things went so wrong (or right, as the case may be).

There are actually several stories present in the text. Conservatism v. progressiveness, marriages in turmoil, and the peril of refusing to see what's right before your eyes being only a few of the messages put forth. Benefactors also offers a realistic take on the idea of "us v. them," with those intent on change and those adamantly opposed all eventually forced to compromise to some degree. As one character notes, you can't stop progress, all you can do it modify it at points to make it more palatable.

Another good thing about the story is that it's never clear where the piece is going. Indeed, we don't find out till almost the end just who ends up with whom, or what exactly happened and who's still alive to tell the tale. There's also a first act closer that's quite the shocker.

Casting is good all around. Jenkins is fine as the business-obsessed David, a man caring greatly for his work and frustrated to the extreme when having to deal with endless red tape. He's also someone who likes to keep things simple and is eventually forced to make some serious decisions in regards to both his professional and personal future.

Benesch works well as Jane, one of those women who adapts herself to fit into her husband's world. She's also a loving wife and mother, yet with passions and needs of her own. Ones which she finally realizes she can no longer ignore.

The Colin character is sort of a cipher. At one point a seemingly screaming rabble-rouser, at other times a rather sexist fellow with very particular ideas on how his wife should behave, and at still other times, someone trying to do what he firmly believes is right, with a world view certainly not everyone will agree with. It's a credit to Turner that he can make the character an object of curiosity and scrutiny rather than simple dismissal.

The unlikely linchpin of the story is Sheila, at first glance an overlooked mousy woman who never says a word, but later revealing herself to be an emotional vampire. She has a tumultuous home life and turns to Jane and David for friendship and security, while looking for her very identity in someone else's existence. The fact that this may not be the first time she's found herself in such a situation adds additional layers to her somewhat creepy persona. Lorette does a great job in making this complex person feel fully three-dimensional. All of these characters are probably not people you'd want to spend any long amounts of time with, but all are quite fascinating to watch.

Carl Forsman's direction is sure and smooth, letting the story unfold naturally and keeping the tension growing slowly, as the various characters are moved around like chess pieces in the text Frayn has created until they are ready for the endgame.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the realization of how much the characters' lives have changed over the course of the play, yet how little they've actually changed themselves.

By Michael Frayn
Directed by Carl Forsman
Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Scenic Designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume Designer: Jennifer Paar
Lighting Designer: Josh Bradford
Sound Designer: Will Pickens
Technical Director: Marshall Miller
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca Spinac
Casting Director: Judy Bowman
Props Designer: Ricola Wille
Assistant Costume Designer: Amanda Jenks
Assistant Lighting Designer: Stephen Sakowski
Master Electrician: Laura Schoch
Assistant Director: Joe Pikowski
Assistant Production Manager: Michael Lapinsky
Fight Choreographer: Paul Molnar

Vivienne Benesch (Jane), Daniel Jenkins (David), Stephen Barker Turner (Colin), Deanne Lorette (Sheila)

Presented by the Keen Company
Theatre Row Studios

410 West 42nd Street
Closed: May 7, 2010

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