Michael Frayn is best known for two wildly different plays: the farce Noises Off (1982) and the particle-physics drama Copenhagen (1998). Yet, in all his plays his preoccupation is the same: man’s disastrous attempt to impose order on his surroundings, and the way life resists. In Benefactors, his dark-humored 1985 follow-up to Noises Off, he focuses on two couples. One, David and Jane, live a comfortable middle-class existence in London. David, an architect, has won the job of providing low-cost housing in southwest London (very unfashionable and gritty back then) in a project called Basuto Road. Meanwhile, their friends, Colin and Sheila, are having some marital troubles. Colin belittles his wife and treats her condescendingly. Jane suggests that David hire Sheila part-time to help boost her self-esteem, and from that benevolent impulse comes nearly a decade of disasters.
Frayn is satirizing liberal do-goodism, and his echoes of Ibsen (the architect Solness in The Master Builder, as well as the well-meaning but inept Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck) suggest the depths of his seriousness. Anyone expecting door-slamming farce should be forewarned. The humor here is grim, and the situation is bleak.
David, played with rationalism and openness and a necessary touch of the milquetoast by James Arden, finds himself beset by building codes, underground power cables, open-space advocates, and public opposition, and to each he must cede a part of his vision. “I’m not going to build towers,” he says initially. “No one wants to live in a tower.” But David’s frustration builds as his original concept of homes surrounding a courtyard in the style of Cambridge University eventually becomes two 15-story skyscrapers to accommodate all the outside interests.
As David’s project is undermined, so is his wife’s rehabilitation of their neighbors’ lives. Sheila, played with querulous apprehension by Francine Margolis, who’s a bit too physically sturdy to be completely persuasive as the mousy waif, but is otherwise excellent (though dressed unflatteringly), is secretly in love with David, but she flounders at taking care of all the work that children and home require (she can’t drive). Sheila is continually belittled by Ian Gould’s prickly Colin, a journalist whose skepticism has curdled into contempt.
Meanwhile, Jane, played with a wry forthrightness by Lisa Blankenship, is trying to get herself out of the house. She’s a trained anthropologist and resists being David’s helper: “I hate helping people,” she says. “I want to study them.” As Sheila becomes more entwined in the lives of David and Jane, Colin becomes more isolated. He leaks information about David’s plans to the press, and pretty soon Sheila decides she has to leave him. Jane and David become her reluctant benefactors and take in her and her children.
As is the practice of Folding Chair Classical Theatre, which concentrates on text and actors, there is virtually no scenery—a table and four chairs for David’s architectural study; a small stool with a telephone; and upstage, a bar that holds drinks and a coffeepot. The rest is a black box. The virtue of such a production is that it focuses attention on the text and the playing of the piece, and the skilled cast brings forth Frayn’s psychological complexity pretty well.
“You want everyone to love you,” says Jane to Colin, “or you want everyone to love you in spite of being hateful.” Later, when Colin accuses Jane of hating Basuto Road, Jane’s stunned reaction is superbly revealing. Nevertheless, a play about architecture almost cries out for a visual metaphor or some indication of the class of people who inhabit it, especially as it moves from bourgeois comfort to the dilapidated squat where the disgruntled Colin eventually finds himself.
Apart from that, the particulars of Frayn’s play have dated, certainly; today no one would think of housing the poor in towers, and yet towers are highly desirable as middle- and upper-class residences, at least in New York. And the language of social engineering in England is different from what it is here, so there’s a linguistic barrier that presents an obstacle to one’s understanding. Still, Folding Chair’s resurrection of Benefactors, and the company’s emphasis on the text and the actors, is admirable, and it offers a useful, if limited, revisitation of this overlooked work.