Writers’ Theatre

David Kitzinger is a middle-aged English architect commissioned to clear away 15 acres of “gray and exhausted” South London Victoriana and replace it with public housing for 3,000. He starts out full of earnest, arrogant enthusiasm, vowing to give the people what he knows is best for them–and most of all to maintain a human scale while doing it. “I’m not going to build towers,” he declares early on. “No one wants to live in a tower.”

Well, you know what comes next, don’t you? Swamped by physical and bureaucratic difficulties, David throws off hunks of idealism like so much ballast. His plans progress from 6 stories to 11 to 18, until he finds himself calling for a pair of–yes–towers 50 stories high. The year being 1968, he can expect a protest. What he’s not at all prepared for is the fact that the leader of the protest is his old school chum and neighbor, Colin Molyneux–the same snide Colin who’s spent so many evenings sponging dinner off David and his wife, Jane; the same Colin whose own helpless wife, Sheila, has begun to blossom as David’s office assistant.

The great thing about Michael Frayn’s 1984 play, Benefactors, is how it takes David’s tale and teases it out in a million directions without ever letting it lose its snap. On one level this is the (remarkably novelistic) story of a devastating series of professional and domestic betrayals. On another it’s an allegory of Empire, with David representing a Western-style imperialism perpetually ready to help the less fortunate by helping them out of their land, resources, and independence. On still another, it’s a satire of the archetypal Great Man destroyed by the cult of pragmatism. Given our experience with urban renewal projects from Cabrini-Green to Maxwell Street, Chicagoans might be inclined to see it as a parable about the folly of bureaucracy. It might even be interpreted as a meditation on the problem of what happens to ostensibly liberal values when faced with a focused and relentless evil, such as Hitler in 1938 or Osama bin Laden in 2001.

The intellectually agile author of Copenhagen–a recent hit play about quantum mechanics–Frayn clearly wants us to engage every one of these alternatives while drawing solid conclusions about none of them. His dialogue is dialectical, constantly asserting and refuting itself; his characters are built up, undercut, and built up again in the course of a few exchanges. Who, for instance, is David? Good-hearted and overwhelmingly smug; inspired and cowardly; generous and self-involved; loving, trusting, and utterly clueless when it comes to other people. Similarly conflicted portraits are drawn of Colin–whose malevolence seems at times to rise to a kind of wisdom, like that of Beelzebub in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus–and especially of Jane: an Ibsenian heroine transplanted to the age of Betty Friedan, she’s led at once to the most egregious acts of faithlessness and the most lucid acts of kindness by the simple reality that she’s a hundred times more competent than anybody else onstage.

The jittery, refractive mutability that Frayn gives his characters doesn’t preclude a sharp resolution. In combination, their particular mess of attributes and urges moves Benefactors toward an inevitable, though in no way pro forma conclusion. Marshall McLuhan said, “We march backwards into the future,” and that’s definitely the case here. Especially in this chamber theater-like production, directed by Michael Halberstam as if he were recounting a chess game, the play turns out to be a quiet, civil tragedy.

The cleanest trajectory in that tragedy belongs to Sheila–a simple motion from nothingness to personhood–and Natasha Lowe embodies it well. Thin, round-eyed, with a perfectly smooth expanse of alabaster forehead, Lowe looks like a cross between Susan Sarandon’s hippie sister in Atlantic City and Sandy Dennis’s Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and she projects a similar sense of smashable delicacy. Joel Hatch’s Colin, meanwhile, is just the guy to do the smashing. Though he doesn’t avail himself of certain opportunities to bring Colin all the way to the edge of the abyss, Hatch makes him an intriguingly sympathetic monster. And, during a moment of wild, red-faced laughter, a full-out demonic one.

Like Hatch, Scott Jaeck keeps to a strong middle, seeming to resist the temptation to go in search of extremes. His David is all dithering, jovial perplexity, with none of the Napoleonic undertones that Frayn’s lines suggest at times. This lack of edge renders him at once boring and puzzling. He can’t, I kept telling myself, be that much of a fop. Susan Hart, by contrast, has the capable woman very powerfully down pat. Think Martha Stewart with a little more heart and a lot less self-justification. She reminds me of that great Holly Hunter character in Broadcast News (also named Jane) who answers the taunt that “it must be nice to always believe you know better” with “No, it’s awful. Oh my, it’s awful.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.