Plays, like buildings, can look better on paper than they do in three-dimensional space.
In Michael Frayn's "Benefactors," a British architect designs a housing project consisting of two enormous skyscrapers. The plans look spectacular. But the people who live in the neighborhood that would be uprooted don't see the blueprints. They foresee themselves living in such a project, and they don't like it.
"Benefactors" is not merely a commentary on urban renewal. By juxtaposing the architect's public drama with the private dramas of his marriage and his relationship with his neighbors, Frayn designed a richly layered piece about the limits of human contact as well as the limits of Western idealism.
Reading this play, or thinking about it after seeing it, one can't help but admire the way Frayn weaves his themes into one beautifully calibrated narrative. In its quieter way, the structure of this play is even more impressive than the devilish design of "Noises Off," Frayn's ingenious but somewhat elongated backstage farce.
Yet my reaction to the production of "Benefactors" on South Coast Repertory's Second Stage seldom went beyond admiration of Frayn's handiwork. The play doesn't fully come alive.
Director Stephen D. Albrezzi hasn't allowed "Benefactors" to breathe. The pacing is hurried. "Benefactors" might be called a "talky" play, but the remedy for talkiness is not necessarily to run through the script as fast as possible in order to make the evening shorter. Instead, a few precisely placed and timed pauses could work wonders, not only as a means of breaking up the talk, but also as a way to let the talk sink in.
Something is also missing from the central performance, that of David Haskell as the architect. On one level, this man is a soft touch. He bends over backward to help the couple living across the street, blindly ignoring the fact that the husband resents and eventually hates him and that the wife loves him and sees him as a way out of her wretched marriage.
Haskell's innocent, boyish features have no problem expressing this side of the character.
On another level, though, this man is ambitious and deceptively arrogant. He believes he knows what's best for other people, and it's a shock when they don't agree. Because he's an optimist, feeding his view of the world with his own self-confidence, he seldom puts his less attractive feelings into words. It becomes the actor's responsibility to show us what his character is unwilling to say--and this is where Haskell's performance falters.
Marnie Mosiman is much better as Jane, the architect's wife. Around the house, Jane is as much a self-appointed benefactor as her husband. But her professional life is a different matter. She points out that she is an anthropologist, not a social worker. She strives to understand people, not to change them. As a result, she is more tuned in to her neighbors--and to her own feelings about them--than is her husband. Mosiman's performance is as forthright and solid as her character.
Anni Long is a compelling bundle of exposed nerves as Sheila, the needy neighbor, and Daniel Kern is smoothly malevolent as her husband, the defiant neighbor.
The design of the production is austere by South Coast standards. Michael Devine's kitchen set consists of a table and chairs and a counter at the rear. Tom Ruzika's lighting helps trace the path between the various monologues and the flashbacks they recall, yet it doesn't add much in the way of atmosphere. The sound design consists of quiet, reflective piano music by Diane King.
The combined effect is restrained, refined--and bloodless, even perfunctory. This production needs some oomph, some appreciation of the passions--as well as the ideas--that lie behind this fascinating play.
A play by Michael Frayn, at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Directed by Steven D. Albrezzi. Sets by Michael Devine. Costumes by Charles Tomlinson. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Music by Diane King. With David Haskell, Marnie Mosiman, Daniel Kern, Anni Long. Plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets: $19-$24. (714) 957-4033.