David (David Adkins), whose self-characterization is that of a visionary architect (wearing corduroy, courtesy costumer David Murin), hopes to revitalize with redevelopment in an area called Basuto Road in South London. While the time portrayed is late 1960s, all of the individuals are in the present year which is 1984. Hence, this is recollection/flashback. David's wife Jane (Corinna May) is probably the most solidly grounded person on stage; she is an anthropologist who tries to be helpful. (Adkins and May are real-life partners.)
David's intent is to make the slum neighborhood a better place yet his structural plan includes high towers. That does not please Colin (Walton Wilson), his former college buddy and a writer who protests by loudly explaining that he wishes to assist needy people. Thus, he argues against David's scheme. Colin is far from an ideal spouse for Sheila (Barbara Sims), a former nurse. Early on, it becomes apparent that this marriage is troubled, so it is not surprising that Sheila (lacking) leaves. She lands in David and Jane's home and Colin, too, goes elsewhere. Shelia, during the second act, is both quite functional and even a bit annoying. Colin, though, is far more aggravating. One wishes that he would just vanish. That would not happen, for his presence and ego would never allow it. David, too, thinks a great deal of himself but his theoretical idealism never is actualized. Instead, David, another human just full of himself, grows exasperated and fatigued and wears his disappointment.
Frayn's admirable writing seems, at first, to be recommending hope and success. Benefactors becomes more about disillusionment as its theme and outlook are fairly bleak. The script, early on, garners attention through dialogue exchange and monologues, the latter directed toward the audience. David and Colin, each aspiring to assist the needy, are juxtaposed opposite one another. It does appear, at first, that the two couples know one another well. When the plot moves forward, we find that, beneath the surface, this might not be so. The four lives are interwoven but that does not facilitate deep, trusting friendship.
The play is potent from the actors' first words. The four participants, unhurried and each fully locating individual characters, are sustaining and effective. Lacing the entire piece is the irony of the title. David and Colin are surely not saviors. Jane, at last finding that she has had quite enough of her husband, begins to lean, but not literally, toward Colin. Sheila, victim of her non-relationship with Colin, is looking too hard for love.
There is nothing redemptive about Colin, who is vexed and unlikable. Hill's take on Benefactors is not an especially dark one. The director accurately zeroes in upon interpersonal issues. One must credit Walton Wilson for his depiction of Colin and he provides a persuasive turn which leads directly to his character's center. That is quality acting. The character is not a sympathetic one but Wilson's performance is assuredly convincing.
The Unicorn Theatre is a likely choice for this show since observers feel they could step right into the kitchen, designed by John McDermott. The locale, with period appropriate appliances and a wooden table and chairs, works. It is fully complementary.
Benefactors continues at the Unicorn Theatre as part of Berkshire Theatre Festival's season in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through July 26th, 2014. For tickets, call (413) 997-4444 or visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.
- Fred Sokol