Saturday, November 6, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Benefactors

First produced on Broadway a quarter century ago with a star-studded cast that included Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Simon Jones and Mary Beth Hurt, Michael Frayn’s Benefactors opened in 1985 to rave reviews. Unfortunately, I never got to see that production – more’s the pity – but I have just done the next best thing: I saw Retro Production’s Off Off Broadway revival of the play at the Spoon Theatre and I found it absolutely mesmerizing. It is truly a gem.

The play revolves around the inter-relationships among David (Matthew Semlew), a well-meaning architect seeking to build new homes to replace the “twilight area” housing of Basuto Road; his wife Jane (Kristen Vaughan), an anthropologist; and their neighbors Colin (David Ian Lee), a journalist and his wife Sheila (Heather E. Cunningham), a one-time nurse. Set in 1968 in London, the play is infused with a sense of the political correctness of the time (which perhaps isn’t really all that different from today’s): the liberal establishment knows what is best for the lower socio-economic classes, notwithstanding what the lower classes might think is best for themselves (in Benefactors the issue is housing but think “Obamacare” today.)

The four characters appear to have two things in common, at least at the outset of the play. One is the need to seek gratification through the abstract contemplation or management of other people’s lives, rather than in living their own. Thus David evidences considerably more concern for the denizens of Basuto Road and for Colin and Sheila than he does for his own family. Jane views the world as an anthropological project, devoting herself to the market research aspects of David’s architectural scheme. Colin is a journalist, reporting on the lives of others while failing to come to grips with his own. And Sheila has so little regard for her own life, as opposed to that of others, that she chooses to relieve Jane of her household chores rather that fulfill her own familial obligations.

The second is their basic contrariness or need to define themselves only in opposition to others. As Jane describes it early on, if David favors something, she instinctively opposes it. But then if David favors something, Colin instinctively opposes it too, so Jane must then oppose Colin which aligns her with David after all. These automatic negative predispositions define the characters as well.

In the course of the play, all four characters change in different directions and it is that evolutionary development that provides the play with its intellectual and emotional depth. David, who truly does care about the plight of the denizens of Basuto Road, nonetheless comes to the conclusion, in regard to his architectural scheme, that “In the end, it’s not art, it’s mathematics.” His approach to life, while superficially remaining empathetic, becomes increasingly cold and analytical and, ultimately, the term “progressive collapse,” initially intended to describe an architectural problem of the sort that culminated in the tragedy at the World Trade Center, comes to describe his life.

Jane, the analytical outsider, becomes emotionally (not just abstractly) involved in the lives of those on Basuto Road and her allegiance may (or may not) shift from David to Colin. But is this truly an example of her psychological growth or just evidence of her continuing contrariness?

Colin, the ultimate outsider, clearly angry, probably jealous of David, and possibly mentally unhinged or just downright evil, stops reporting the news and begins to make it, first as a squatter attempting to block David’s project and then as an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament. But his motivations too are unclear: has he become truly concerned for the plight of the residents of Basuto Road or are his petty jealousies and animosity toward David continuing to drive him?

For her part, Sheila evolves from being a timid, subservient, needy, dependent housewife, barely able to cope with the limited responsibilities of picking her children up from school and preparing meals for her family, to becoming David’s secretary and confidante and, eventually, to freeing herself completely from Colin’s dominance and embarking on a course of therapy destined to make her whole again. But is that really what is happening to her or is she simply about to repeat her self-destructive attachment to another couple? That is what she did with one couple before meeting David and Jane; that is what she then did by falling in love with Jane (albeit not necessarily in a sexual sense) and then transferring her love to David; and it is possible that that is all she is doing now with her therapist and her therapist’s husband.

Both Semler and Lee play their roles well but the highest praise must be reserved for the two female actors. Vaughan is terrific, expressing a range of inner emotions within a tightly controlled exterior that one could only expect from a true professional. And Cunningham, who is also the company’s Producing Artistic Director, is simply phenomenal. She portrays Sheila with a depth and intensity that is absolutely breathtaking.

The Lighting Designer for most productions is often overlooked and I should like to make sure that such an oversight does not occur here. In that capacity, Justin Sturges has done an outstanding job with this production and has contributed considerably to its success.

Indeed, my only disappointment with the production was with the set design which I found to be pedestrian at best. This was surprising since the Set Designers, Jack and Rebecca Cunningham, are justifiably highly regarded in the field. To be generous, I’d assume that it was only the space limitations of the small Spoon Theater and/or the financial limitations of Retro Productions which thwarted their ambitions but, even so, I should have expected better of them.

That, however, is a very minor complaint. Overall, this is a marvelous production and I’d urge you to see it.

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