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Off Broadway


Benny
part of
The Midtown International Theatre Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Benny
Morgan Lindsey Tachco and Susan Barrett.
Photo by Scott Wynn.

“When you open up a can of worms, you never know what you’re going to get: caviar or worms.” That sage advice is perfectly representative of Benny, Suzanne Bachner’s sparkling and unpredictable play at the Midtown International Theatre Festival: head-scratching and twisty, yes, but ultimately wise, and very difficult to extract from your head after exposure.

The line is spoken by Marcie (Susan Barrett) to the daughter, Anna (Morgan Lindsey Tachco), she abandoned at a Jewish orphanage about two decades earlier. (Anna’s nickname there, for no reason anyone can recall: “Benny.”) Anna’s quest to unearth her true roots hasn’t turned out quite as she hoped. Marcie is thrilled, of course - no can of worms, Anna - but Anna is unsettled by Marcie’s attempts to reintegrate her into an enormous family Anna has never known or cared anything about. Does Marcie love Anna at all, or does she merely love collecting new relations?

The pair’s conflict is only part of Anna’s story, but it’s emblematic of every trouble in this young woman’s life. She has constant disagreements with her alternately nosey and disinterested father (Bob Celli). She’s fallen in love with Shane (Tim Smallwood), who reveals his abusive and alcoholic colors too late for Anna to prevent permanent damage. And she’s still recovering from giving - and losing - her heart to Max (Danny Wiseman), an older family friend who treated and discarded her in ways that should never happen to anyone, let alone an underage girl.

Oh yes, and Anna is manic-depressive. But this aspect of her is no pity-provoking afterthought. Bachner deftly weaves the disorder into every corner of the play, not only relating the younger Anna to her adoptive same-named Aunt who committed suicide, but introducing a second group of characters that reflect different aspects of Anna’s meandering mind. Ms. Boyd (Barrett) is the adoption counselor Anna uses to track down Marcie and learn more about her condition. Dr. Weitzner (Celli) is a friend of Anna’s father and a psychologist tasked with treating her. Wiseman also plays a callous cabbie who’s skilled at too-probing small talk; and Smallwood doubles as a mysterious young man who serves as the strange but powerful link between Anna and the family that rescued her.

Because Bachner carefully presents and unfolds every issue, treating each development with abject seriousness, keeping track of the whos, whys, and whats of this dysfunctional, discordant nonet is never troublesome or a trial. With the help of director Trish Minskoff, whose deployment of both stone-still stand-and-speak delivery and percussive cross-cutting in staging scenes never lets the pace slacken, she even makes an addictive game of unraveling and reordering all the various narrative threads until they are ideally placed for a satisfying - and entirely earned - conclusion.

Tachco is wonderful as Anna, firmly traversing the several years over which the story takes place, and proving equally convincing as both an uncontrollable teen and an inconsolable young adult. With every one of the character’s rash decision or emotional setback, the actress propels you into the character’s pained existence - the play and her performance often intertwine so tightly that you too are experiencing some form of bipolarity. If Barrett teeters on the edge of caricature as the caffeinated arts-and-crafts addict Marcie, she’s just right as the professional and deceptively warm Ms. Boyd, who carries an important secret or two of her own. The other actors also shine in their dual roles.

Benny isn’t yet as polished as it could be. Marcie and Max come a little too close to being mustache-twirling antagonists. And though Bachner’s use of a constantly disrupted timeline helps unsteady your own perspective on events, it sometimes clouds the story - as the action spans just a few years, you can’t always immediately tell from one look at the stage or one line of dialogue where you are in the chronology.

But the play’s captivating portrayal of mental illness, from both inside and out, as well as its uniquely everyday characters, ground you and the show so much that you’re never left disoriented for long. Plus, Bachner’s writing is so sassy, serious, and theatrical you’ll be hanging on nearly every word. As but one example: “You used to look at me like I was God,” Max tells Anna after they split up; her reply: “I’m an atheist now.” With every line like that, Benny proves that it’s pure caviar.


Benny
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, first floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix