Sunday, April 3, 2011

Benefactors ***

The Keen Company's production of Michael Frayn's 1984 play Benefactors is a welcome addition to the season. "No good deed goes unpunished" might serve as a summary of Frayn's tale of the complicated relations between two London couples over a period of several years starting in 1968. David (Daniel Jenkins) is an architect developing a project for high- and low-rise council housing in South London. His wife Jane (Vivienne Benesch) is an anthropologist, who now helps her husband by interviewing residents of the neighborhood targeted for demolition. Colin (Stephen Barker Turner), an old university acquaintance of David, is a not-very-successful journalist married to Sheila (Deanne Lorette), an emotionally unstable ex-nurse. David and Jane have found a house across the road for Colin and Sheila and are "rewarded" by constant unannounced visits from Sheila, who has virtually made a lifestyle out of helplessness. Jane usually ends up including Sheila and her family at their supper table. David craves being loved by everyone, while Colin would prefer to be universally hated. He is jealous and hateful toward David, but David's good nature prevents him from comprehending that anyone could hate him. The attempts by Jane and David to mend Colin and Sheila's troubled marriage only make things worse. Their attempt to help Sheila by giving her a part-time job working with David backfires when Shelia foolishly relays information about the housing project to Colin, who leaks it to the press and begins a campaign to stop it. When Sheila leaves Colin, they end up housing her and her children. Jane loathes Colin. Sheila loves David. Things finally boil over in a shocking confrontation in the kitchen.

The American cast is uniformly excellent. Kudos to their dialect coach. Carl Forsman ably directed. Dane Lafftey's set is appropriately stark. The play makes extensive use of asides to the audience expressing each character's view of past events. Normally, I don't care for this technique, but it is used here quite effectively. The nature of good and evil, the pluses and minuses of governmental intervention in people's lives, the corrosive influence of jealousy and hatred on public and private affairs, and the harm that even love and goodness can wreak are all brought out in the play -- and in just 2 hours 10 minutes. (Tony Kushner, take note.)

P.S. Since the play was written in 1984, Frayn could not possibly have imagined what an eerie effect David's encomium to his proposed twin towers would have on a post-9/11 New York audience.

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