Erector Set

Michael Frayn's better plays tend to be overshadowed by his best-known work: the superlative backstage farce Noises Off, or any of his several clever novels (most notably Headlong, a Booker Prize contender). Frayn's Benefactors, which won the Olivier Award in 1984 and was later revived in London, is one of those "better plays" that fewer people know about. Too bad, too -- it's smart and amusing and can, as its current Actors Theatre production proves, be a lot of fun to watch.

Benefactors is veddy British, set in Thatcher-era England at a time when the redevelopment of inner-city slums was a contentious issue. Frayn's main thrust here is a commentary on classism and the loss of history, but (despite reams of chatter) one has to listen closely for Frayn's editorial. It's lodged gently into a story of four friends, a pair of couples who live on the same street. Jane and David are happy professionals -- he a successful architect, she an anthropologist -- while Colin, a has-been journalist, and frowsy, subservient Sheila are unhappy and embittered. David's obsessed with the redevelopment of an inner-city slum, which he hopes to tear down and replace with a pair of colossal residential high-rises. Things get cooking when Colin, perhaps in retribution for his wife's having fallen in love with David (and maybe even Jane), becomes an anarchist who publicly decries David's plan.

Their story takes a while to get rolling; once it does, we see that the couples represent the two sides of Frayn's commentary on the politics of the working class, and the differences between those who provide help and those who receive it. There's an ongoing debate about whether the unwashed masses are able to decide their own fate or need smarter people to do so for them.

Director Matthew Wiener maintains a consistent energy in the play, which is built entirely on "French scenes," with actors ceaselessly coming and going, and with endless time-shifts that are seamless thanks to Wiener's skillful timing. He also gives subtle shading to the later sections, where Jane grows weary of her husband's cheerful naiveté and begins chatting up the evil Colin.

Nicolas Glaeser steals the show from his talented castmates by playing Colin with dapper oiliness. He's created a mean-spirited character whose most fearful quality is his inability to change, but one whom we grow to love, because he's brought to life so joyously by the actor. Jenn Banda demonstrates wide range as Colin's wife, Sheila, projecting a kindness and serenity that belie the more sophisticated, less static emotions she displays later.

No one who's seen Gene Ganssle perform will be surprised to know that he is spot-on as David, a guilt-ridden, charmingly goofy guy who never awakens entirely from his own optimism. Maren Maclean is a remarkable Jane, self-possessed and lovable even when she's trusting a nitwit like Sheila or a rascal like Colin. And all the actors pull off what I'd come to believe was an impossible feat for any cast in Phoenix: Their accents are all believable and appropriate.

More important than the actors' intonations is their elevation of Benefactors above its time-sensitive allegory. The play succeeds as what Frayn intended it to be: a commentary on imperialistic British society, but one that's still amusing and fun to watch.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela