It’s not simply because “Benefactors” concerns itself, among numerous topics, with twin skyscrapers that turn into “monstrous tombstones” that Michael Frayn’s remarkable 1984 play seems even more mournful now than it did two decades ago. Why should Frayn’s requiem for the impossibility of change stir a contemporary audience that much further removed from the architectural battles waged in London in the late 1960s, when most of the play’s retrospective action is set? No doubt because its riveting (and disturbing) anatomy of human behavior refuses to be limited either by geography or by time as it edges ever closer to the human capacity for darkness that is an ironically titled script’s true subject.
“People — that’s what wrecks all our plans,” concludes David (Aden Gillett), the utopia-minded architect who ends up inhabiting a fiercely compromised dystopia to which he has in no small measure contributed. And as Jeremy Sams’ revival catches all four principals in final and isolating pools of light (Tim Mitchell is the expert lighting designer), you can’t help but feel that “Benefactors” knows the scary yet essential truth: Now, as then, malefaction seems to be what unites mankind.
This remains the new (at the time) English play that made far and away the strongest impression on me in my first years in London, and Michael Blakemore’s original production was even better in its (recast) transfer to New York. Following for the second time in Blakemore’s formidable footsteps, having not long ago revived “Noises Off,” Sams asserts his own take on an emotionally elastic text that finds sympathies shifting as the characters’ own allegiances do. Oddly, Sams stints on the grim drama of a second-act incident that, in staging terms, allows for the play’s primary set piece. But he captures the broader tenor of Frayn’s Ibsenesque take on the limitations and failures of liberalism, a point that resonates whether or not you know the specifics of Ronan Point (the doomed tower block in London’s East End) that must have spurred the playwright on.
The play’s obvious prototype gets specifically invoked: Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” an earlier work about a visionary whose dreams — like those of the idealistic David, whom the excellent “Noises Off” alum Gillett plays, eyes shining — come crashing to the ground. But Frayn is too schooled as well in Chekhov not to invoke “Uncle Vanya,” another play that folds incident into repeated direct address to the audience. Indeed, David’s neighbor, Sheila (Emma Chambers), is like a more subversively passive-aggressive version of Chekhov’s Sonya, defining herself to eventual employer and dreamed-of lover David in terms of work just as Sonya so resignedly does to Vanya.
Sheila is the play’s showiest role and proved a career highpoint the first time around for Brenda Blethyn in London and the phenomenal Mary Beth Hurt in New York. Very much resembling the “dormouse” to whom Sheila is compared, a bespectacled Chambers conceives the part anew, shrinking into herself in worry and self-doubt and yet lashing out with that sense of entitlement and usurpation that life’s victims sometimes possess. (The diminutive actress has one magical moment, clutching at a falling leaf as a symbol of grace.) Husband Colin (Neil Pearson, oozing a disgust that can only turn inward) is “Benefactors”‘ most overtly bellicose figure, a hack journalist once steeped in the classics who forsakes employment altogether in order to devote himself to full-time opposition of the grandiose south London building scheme that has become well-meaning north Londoner David’s passion — and folly, too.
That leaves David’s endlessly sensible anthropologist wife, Jane (Sylvestra le Touzel), to straddle the warring camps, her helpfulness slowly unmasked as a front disguising a very Colin-like chill. It’s Frayn’s unnerving point that by play’s end there isn’t a do-gooder among the foursome who hasn’t in some way done harm or been harmed, with the quartet as much in need of rehabilitation as the “gray and exhausted” Victorian district of southeast London that has become David’s life’s work. Le Touzel doesn’t come readily by the radiance that distinguished Glenn Close in this part on Broadway; where Close both shone and made one shudder, le Touzel tends to galumph. But she fully detonates a passing exchange late in the first act by refusing to say whether she is happy; “lucky” is as much as Jane will allow.
It’s the luck, too, of a somnolent West End summer to get a play and production that refuse to sweeten Frayn’s at one point all too literally scalding way with the truth. As the lights go up on Robert Jones’ tellingly concrete-flanked set, itself a visual indication of the mausoleum that threatens to entomb the characters, an audience is left staring head-on at a cornice-laden architectural brutalism only to have seen two hours later the way in which lasting brutality begins at home.