In "Benefactors" at South Coast Repertory, David Haskell plays David, a well-meaning but self-righteous architect caught in the vise of public opinion. David is eager to build a two-pronged skyscraper in an English slum, but he is fought all the way by a small group that sees it as an urban-planning monstrosity.
Where do you start in preparing for such a role? Talking with architects about their worst community experiences? Visiting planning commissions in hope of finding a juicy building controversy?
Haskell was lucky--the Studio City actor didn't have to look further than his own neighborhood for inspiration.
A versatile performer with credits from Broadway (among other plays and musicals, he acted opposite Meryl Streep in a Lincoln Center production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure") to TV soaps (he played Nick Hartley on "Santa Barbara"), Haskell has long been active in a community project that provided him with insight into the architect sensibility.
The lean, long-faced Haskell is the chairman of a committee empowered to direct the restoration of a historic Studio City church. One of his duties was to help select an architect who met the community's needs by renovating the building while retaining its antique charm. His close association with that architect helped him understand David.
"I've seen that they (architects) really are solvers of problems (and) people with a great deal of commitment toward getting the job done," said Haskell, 39. "I've also seen that they have to compromise. . . . They have to deal with the public body in an interchange; they aren't all on their own."
But in "Benefactors"--written by Michael Frayn, the British author probably best known for his comedy, "Noises Off"--David often seems to be off on his own, working against the public view instead of with it. He bends some but is ultimately unwilling to alter his plans much, provoking his foes in the process.
In interpreting David, Haskell believes it's not so much ego as the responsible eagerness to do his job that pushes the character. "He wants to get (the skyscraper) up and get on with his life. That's what he does because he (doesn't feel fulfilled) unless he's getting the building up."
Haskell does, however, see Frayn's point that the architect or urban planner can actually do harm when he becomes obsessive and loses sight of the bigger picture. That thought is most clearly conveyed by Colin (played by Dan Kern), David's good friend who turns on him and leads the protest against the skyscraper.
"Colin, of course, sees it as nothing much more than egotistical aggrandizement," Haskell said. "It's more to him than David just trying to solve a problem."
There's a note of sympathy in Haskell's feelings about David. But he's also quick to point out his flaws.
"Because of his arrogance, you can see why he's gotten into trouble," Haskell said. "He has an ineffectual quality, an ineffectual strength."
When Haskell talks about the character, it is usually in complex and subtle terms. But some critics have said his portrayal lacks depth and faulted him for merely showing David's "boyish, self-confidence" while ignoring the darker side that might explain his personality more clearly.
Haskell shrugged, obviously feeling that there is no reason to apologize for his approach. "That is very touchy ground. Those are just opinions," he said.
Haskell also believes that focusing on David's project--even though it is at the play's center--can be a mistake. "Benefactors" is more about personal relationships between people during crucial times in their lives than about the ethics of urban development, he argued.
Frayn's play explores David's deteriorating relationship with his wife (Marnie Moisman), Colin's bitter marriage to Sheila (Anni Long) and their tenuous connections to each other. It's often a whiplash struggle of wills and personalities in a rather domestic environment.
"The play is really on several levels and, I think it's safe to say, looks at the nature of man," Haskell said. "It's particularly (pertinent) to people in their 30s because it talks about accepting compromises as you start to get older.
"It says you have to start getting your own act together. You can't compromise too much; you have to approach life with something of a warrior's attitude--ruthlessly, but with some compassion, too."
"Benefactors" will play through Dec. 13 at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Information: (714) 957-2602.