theater (reviews)

review: benefactors

Benefactors

By Michael Frayn
Directed by Carl Forsman
Featuring Vivienne Benesch, Daniel Jenkins, Stephen Turner, Deanne Lorette

Keen Company at Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
production web site:  http://www.keencompany.org/home/

April 5, 2011 (opening) — April 30, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 2, 2011

  • “I should have gone off and had the baby on my own.  I could have coped then.” (Sheila)
  • “Fairness and tidiness and truth are for those who got what they want already.” (Colin)
  • “It was people.  That’s who wrecks all our plans. People.” (David)
  • “I’ve learned from working with people they like to be told what to do.” (Jane)

(L-R) Daniel Jenkins, Vivienne Benesch, Deanne Lorette, Stephen Barker Turner. Photo credit: Richard Termine.

The set is limned in plywood painted convincingly to represent cement slabs suggesting grey suburban tract life.  Within this Benefactors world, two couples with intersecting lives and philosophies survive and tell their stories resonantly, skillfully, devastatingly.  Dramatic scenes and direct address are interwoven to provide the varying perspectives of four neighbors in a domestic drama addressing urban renewal, generous impulses, and individuals just trying to make it through.  This kind of structural reliance on monologue direct address, extended asides and ruminations can often plod and bore.  Not so here.  This production of Michael Frayn‘s play in the hands of director Carl Forsman and these four exquisitely talented actors works in intriguing and complex ways.

In Act One the wives Jane (Vivienne Benesch) and Sheila (Deanne Lorette) present their versions of their stories, and in Act Two Jane’s husband David (Daniel Jenkins) and Sheila’s husband and David’s old college chum Colin (Stephen Barker Turner) take over the obligations of direct address.  The play takes place for the most part in the kitchen of the home of David and wife Jane.  Architect David is working on developing new moderate income housing, which will displace residents of a run down neighborhood he refers to as a “twilight area”.  Sheila operates as his colleague and collaborator as well as wife and mother to their children.  Residing across the street (but as Jane and David say “they seemed to live around here”) are combative journalist Colin and stay-at-home-mom-formerly-a-nurse Sheila.  Each character becomes intensely involved in this building scheme, in support or opposition.

This is classic and literal kitchen sink drama that grows in intensity as the layers of past and present story are revealed. The focused, specific, consistent tone of the enacted scenes and the direct address feel as first monotonous (what have we gotten ourselves into here?) and soon grow in complexity and interest as we hear from and try to incorporate the stories of our characters.  Is Sheila purely a needy, frustrated, stay-at-home mom who falls in love with neighbor couples over and over and over?  Is Jane as thoroughly and multi-dimensionally competent as she seems? Can David really be as calmly focused and yet clueless as he appears?  And what indeed is the deal with Colin?  Some details are uncovered, others are not neatly tied up in a bow.   Like life.  This play and these performances stay with you long after curtain.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 5, 2011)

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