Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Benefactors: A Compelling Revival at Theater Row

Benefactors, now playing at Theater Row, is a well executed revival of the 1984 piece by Michael Frayn that won the 1986 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Foreign Best Play. It is a smart, well acted piece on the theme of emotional charity and how it appears different to the benefactor and the receiver. It is an adult play, in the best possible terms.  It doesn't pander of speak down to the audience and, although signposted well, doesn't scream its intents.

Benefactors follow the lives to two couples – the husbands first became friends at University and the families now meet for dinner and drinks often, perhaps too often. The hosts think they are providing food and conversation for a hopeless unorganized family, and the guests think they are providing welcome respite for the married couple who constantly invite them to stay. In this, the British setting works excellently, a relationship might spring up between these two families in such a haphazard way.

Daniel Jenkins, Vivienne Benesch, Deanna Lorette and Stephen Barker Turner in Beneafctors
The hosts are Jane and David, played by Vivienne Benesch and Daniel Jenkins. David is an architect and Jane a sociologist that has worked with him since their marriage. Jane is the organization behind everyone, whether in the family, the house or the neighborhood. David is working on a new neighborhood project, one that grows more complicated as the show progresses.
Colin and Sheila play the neighbors. Stephen Barker Turner is Colin, a frustrated writer turned bitter towards everything. Deanne Lorette plays Sheila, a damp rag of a woman, who grows until the tutelage of first Jane, then David.

Benefactors uses the metaphor of architecture to explore how relationships are built, sometimes as planned, sometimes responding to obstacles. Dane Leffarey’s senic design, at first severe, reinforces the metaphor, the unfinished walls are interchangeable – only the kitchen of Jane’s home reflects warm and heart.

In the first act of Benefactors, Jane and Sheila occasionally address the audience directly, and in the second act David and Colin do the same. It is fascinating to see the exact the same actions interpreted through different eyes. Vivienne Benesch, in particular, handles her audience interactions wonderfully, as if she is naturally sharing reminisces with friends. Her asides set the tone early - and allow those who followed to seem natural.

Deanna Lorette does a good job in a rather thankless role as Shiela, a passive and cringing creature who none the less shows her growing admiration of Jane and David. Colin’s jealousy is predictable, and almost preordained by the friendship. When Colin turns his anger on David and David’s success, it makes sense. He has already ruined everything in his own life, and David is the next obvious target.

Carl Forsman directs this troupe of professionals well, moving the action along nice pace. Not rushed, but not dawdling either. Benefactors is a play that might easily drift into the maudlin or the melodramatic, but this revival manages the trick of keeping it believable and engaging.

Benefactors (Web Site and Tickets)
Playwright: Michael Frayn
Director: Carl Forsman
Cast: Vivienne Benesch, Daniel Jenkins, Deanne Lorette, Stephen Barker Turner

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