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Benefactors

The Keen Company serves up a Grade-A revival of Michael Frayn's searing domestic drama.

By New York City
Daniel Jenkins, Vivienne Benesch, Deanne Lorette
and Stephen Barker Turner in Benefactors
(© Richard Termine)
Daniel Jenkins, Vivienne Benesch, Deanne Lorette
and Stephen Barker Turner in Benefactors
(© Richard Termine)
One of the best things about playwright-novelist Michael Frayn is that he absolutely refuses to repeat himself. His incisive, Tony Award-winning bioplay Copenhagen and his monumental laff-riot Noises Off bear no resemblance to each other, nor to his searing domestic drama Benefactors, which is currently getting a Grade-A revival by the ever-enterprising Keen Company at Theatre Row under Carl Forsman's forthright direction.

This examination of two couples' marriages is, in many ways, Frayn's most traditional work. The plot focuses on architect David (Daniel Jenkins), who is trying to solve a plan whereby he can house low-income families in a series or buildings. His solution is to promote the construction of twin skyscrapers, a plot which strikes others -- including his wife Jane (Vivienne Benesch), an environment-concerned woman in the Jane Jacobs mold -- as detrimental to the perpetuation of livable neighborhoods.

Also taking extreme exception to David's scheme is neighbor Colin (Stephen Barker Turner), whose motive is based more on jealousy than conviction. His increasing abhorrence of everything David represents compels him to leave meek wife Sheila (Deanne Lorette) and their children so he can squat in one of the buildings meant to be demolished for the proposed towers, and from that base, he foments a campaign to unhinge the project.

Frayn is such a wily dramatic manipulator that he's arranged his pressure-cooker two-acter so that timid Sheila becomes the unintentional home-wrecker -- or near home-wrecker -- of the piece. Uncomfortable catering to her husband and children in her own surroundings, she spends much of her time in the kitchen where David and Jane convene. (Dane Laffrey divides his economical set into halves, one a full kitchen, the other occupied only by a single chair. Guess which is meant to belong to whom.)

Eventually hired by David to help him run his home office -- and quickly falling in love with him -- Sheila doesn't see the damage she causes, nor do the others whose relationships simmer until reaching a boiling point. Indeed, the near-denouement row that almost undoes David -- whose abiding characteristic is his need to see both sides of an issue -- and Jane is a particularly nail-biting sequence.

To get his points across, Frayn puts demands on actors that this foursome completely meets. Benesch, who breaks the fourth wall as tightly-wound Jane to outline the action, initially gives the impression she' going to be more arch than called for, but before fade-out, she's cooking on all burners. Jenkins nicely balances David's desire to be fair to one and all in any situation with his professional desires. Turner makes the patience-trying Colin utterly believable. In perhaps the most difficult role, Lorette is the evening's true scene-stealer. It's especially hard not to watch her during her many silent passages.

Fortunately, all of Benefactors is truly worth watching!


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