Also see Richard's review of Be Aggressive
The Aurora Theatre is currently presenting one of Michael Frayn’s early plays to finish its 10th anniversary season. Benefactors won the Olivier Award in 1984 and is currently being revived in London at the Albery Theatre. The American premier took place at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York on December 22, 1985. We saw the four character production in early 1986 with Glen Close, Mary Beth Hurt, Simon Jones and Sam Waterston. The New York Times called it “dazzling ... a prismatic work that circumscribes the disillusionment of an era.” The drama ran 217 performances.
Benefactors is very British, and it represents a time when that country was under the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher. There was a lot of redevelopment of inner city slums, and old Victorian homes were being torn down to make large high rise housing blocks for the low income classes of London. Mr. Frayn makes some very unkind observations in this comedy-drama.
The study of four characters over a period of 15 years, Benefactors traces the intricate relationships of two neighboring couples. Jane and David are successful, happy professionals while Shelia and Colin are angry, insecure and isolated. David (David Arrow) is a prosperous, idealistic architect who wants to build two 50 story towers as a housing project. Jane (Nancy Carlin) is an anthropologist who supports her husband in this ambitious project. She is a sounding board for his grand ideas. Colin (Ron Campbell), who was a classical genius in his school, is now an embittered, rundown journalist who constantly puts down his subservient and mousy wife, Sheila (Araxi Djian).
The plot begins in the present with each of the principals remembering various scenes that have taken place over the 15 year period. It takes a while to get to the crux of this play. The successful couple, David and Jane, befriends the less successful Colin and Sheila, and the plot starts to explore the reciprocal relationship. We see interplay among architecture and politics and those who help and those who are helped. The playwright's intentions are that there is nothing more certain to cause havoc than people with good intentions. Benefactors is absorbing but somewhat schematic. It ripples with irony and intelligence.
David Arrow has appeared in several Off Broadway plays including productions at Circle in the Square, Ensemble Studio Theatre and recently in Anonymous. He plays the oozing self-confidence architect. Trained at the Bristol Old Vic School, the actor has a tendency to throw his voice to a larger theater than the intimate Aurora 200 seat theatre. However, he gives an appealing Candide-type performance. Ron Campbell is a dynamic Colin, and he plays the bitingly sardonic journalist with an effortless chill. Nancy Carlin as Jane gives a valuable, edgy, forceful performance as the wife of the optimistic architect. Ataxia Dijon is a perfect simpering Sheila. She bustles and beams with the right degree of wholesomeness.
Director Joy Carlin ensures that the pace of the play is constantly maintained, using overlapping scenes and effective narration. Since the Aurora is a thrust stage with the audience sitting on three sides, the set has only a few props with the back wall made up like an architect blueprint. The floor of the stage is made up of the same blueprint.
Benefactors plays thru August 18 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. Aurora opens is 11th season with Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things on September 13.