nytheatre.com review by Matt Johnston
June 7, 2008
I realized, as I was walking out of Folding Chair Classical Theatre Company's production of Benefactors at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, that I rarely go to the theatre in New York and see something other than a new play. And as much as I love going to new plays, there was something wonderful about spending last Saturday evening with an established genius, Michael Frayn. I walked out of the theatre so impressed by the sheer craft of the playwriting that I felt completely satisfied.
Frayn is most famous for his frequently produced comedy Noises Off, his Tony Award winning play Copenhagen, and Democracy, which opened on Broadway a few years ago. Benefactors is very much in the vain of the latter two plays, in that it uses a similar theatrical device for storytelling. In Benefactors, four characters (two couples: David and Jane, Colin and Sheila) speak to the audience as they both reminisce and examine the events of the actual plot that we keep flashing back to. David is a passionate architect trying to redevelop an inner city slum with his wife right by his side. And Colin and Sheila are their neighbors (who are constantly over), with a marriage on the rocks and a heap of personal issues between them. As Colin begins to publicly terrorize David's redevelopment scheme, Frayn manages to deeply meditate on the nature of people living in this world and how they both hurt as well as support each other.
For the most part, Folding Chair does a fantastic job reviving this wonderfully subtle play. Director Marcus Geduld deserves credit for seamlessly weaving past and present together spatially, which is not an easy task with this play. The performances are subtle and thoughtful, particularly James Arden, who is able to capture both the passion and fragility of David. Lisa Blankenship, Ian Gould, and Francine Margolis should also be commended for their handling of this difficult text. One of the biggest challenges in performing Benefactors is simply the volume and subtlety of the dialogue, and I thought everyone in the cast did a fantastic job of patiently and passionately working their way through the many layers of the play
The production design is appropriately spare and well-conceived, although my one major reservation (regarding a small detail) was that the choice not to use actual liquid for the stew and in the dinner was somewhat problematic. While this may seem too small an issue to even discuss, the big climactic turning point in the play revolves around, we'll say, some stew and someone's face. And that moment doesn't seem to carry the appropriate weight with pantomime.
That one small reservation aside, this is a wonderful production, and I certainly will be going to see more of Folding Chair's shows so I can spend more evenings in the theatre with some of the great playwriting geniuses of all time.