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PARADOXES OF DEVELOPMENT

 

picture - BenefactorsTheater Review

by Oliver Conant

published June 21, 2008

 

Benefactors by Michael Frayn

now playing Off Broadway at 78th Street Theater Lab

through June 29

 

Michael Frayn’s 1985 Benefactors, which followed his much better known (and brilliant) back-stage farce Noises Off, is an intelligent treatment of what, for the author, must have been a newish phenomenon: the yuppie.  Unlike their American counterparts, Frayn’s yuppies are not selfish materialists. On the contrary, they’re  “benefactors”: do-gooders preoccupied with bettering the lives of those less fortunately situated. They’re the descendants of Dickens’ “telescopic philanthropists,” only of course they’d never admit it, and they speak the language of progressive social reform.  As such, of course they’re ripe targets for satire. 

 

David Kitzinger, played with the requisite invincible narcissism shading into clueless self-absorption by James Arden, is an architect forever pouring over blueprints he keeps unfurled on the kitchen table.  His every waking thought is devoted to his contribution to an ambitious slum clearance scheme, in which he’ll pull down all the “grey and grimy houses” on Basuto Road, replacing what he perceives as a chaos of substandard housing   with a harmonious new council-approved structure designed by himself.

 

David’s wife Jane, herself a professional (she is an anthropologist), at first wholly subscribes to his enthusiastic talk of  “building the new world we're all going to be living in,” and cheerfully functions as his helpmate, personal secretary and booster. Lisa Blankenship, one of the founding members of Folding Chairs Classical Theatre, handles the role with aplomb, capturing Jane’s Lady Bountiful airs and graces and the steeliness she brings to the efficient manager of a household that includes (offstage) children.

 

Those unseen children include her own and those of her socially awkward, tongue tied friend and neighbor Sheila Molyneaux, who is married to David’s brilliant college friend Colin, a sardonic self-declared “Grub Street” journalist with a destructive turn of mind who comes closest to providing an authorial viewpoint. Francine Margolis, another Folding Chairs veteran, is wonderfully passive-aggressive as Sheila, and Ian Gold’s Colin fairly drips with cultivated bitterness. When Sheila’s hero worship of David puts an increasing strain on their marriage he tells her “you’re the only one of us without a sense of humor,” adding, for good measure, “go away, you disgust me.” The moment is not just a reminder of how breathtakingly nasty English domestic comedy can be, it registers how far from that very English virtue, a “sense of humor,” these very English people have allowed their fanatical benevolence to take them. 

 

Premonitions that David’s “progressive” dream is doomed to fail occur early in Benefactors; by the second act, he is an embattled man, his original vision sounding like the worst kind of “urban renewal” tower blocks, bound to leave the residents of Basuto Road worse off than they ever were.  Sheila, now estranged from Colin, takes over from Jane the role of David’s helpmate and amanuensis. Jane, increasingly skeptical of her husband’s embattled utopian visions and deprived of her role as his helper sallies forth to—what else! —help others. She becomes a social worker and occupies herself rehabilitating the very housing that her husband had sought to tear down. Colin, meanwhile, rejects yuppie existence altogether, becomes a squatter and leads in community protests against David’s “skyscraper,” gleefully coming up with slogans on signs that read DON’T SCRAPE THE SKIES JUST SWEEP THE STREETS and THERE ARE BETTER WAYS TO GET HIGH and even SKYSCRAPER=SS.

 

Just how we’re supposed to take the rather Bolshy tinge (as the English would put it) of Colin’s campaign against his old friend, I’m not sure, except that it seems of a piece with the sense that the coziness that these characters once enjoyed—the coziness of their world and their outlook on that world, the coziness of a certain comfortable, complacent liberalism—is neither sustaining nor, perhaps, worth sustaining.  As Colin explains to Jane, she and David have never been able to realize that other people lead lives “as dense and as complicated as your own.”  “People—that’s what wrecked all our plans!” David cries out despairingly. With Colin’s observation in mind it would be more accurate to say that it was the absence of people, except as so many Letraset symbols posed under little loofah trees, that wrecked the plans.

 

Folding Chair, which appears to operate on less than a shoe string (the stage furniture is bare bones minimal and there is no lighting designer listed in the program) is to be commended for tackling this work and for approaching it with the seriousness, but also the comic verve that it deserves. I never saw the Broadway production of Benefactors with Sam Waterston in the role of David, Glenn Close as his wife, Simon Jones as Colin and Mary Beth Hurt as Sheila. Those are tough, if not impossible, acts to follow, but Arden, Blankenship, Margolis and Gold do a more than creditable job bringing their variously blocked, complicated, disagreeable and purblind characters to dramatic life. My sole reservation concerns the unevenly maintained accents, particularly noticeable in Blankenship’s Jane. Marcus Geduld, the director, successfully mines the play’s rich veins of wit and deftly orchestrates its comic encounters and banter.  On the swelteringly hot evening I attended, audience response in the tiny 78th Street Theater Lab space was muted in the first half, but by the second act, despite the heat, the goings on of the very fine ensemble cast were buoyed up in waves of appreciative laughter. 

 

oliverconant @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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