British playwright Michael Frayn's first play, The Two of Us, was so poorly received that audience members spit on him in the street. But the journalist soldiered on, eventually writing the much-loved farce Noises Off and the talky, Tony-winning Copenhagen. As distinct as each of his plays are, all contain a fierce intelligence and a keen understanding of human character.
So it is with Benefactors, now playing at the Aurora, the story of an ill-advised urban renewal project and two troubled couples mired in deception. Cool and collected David and Jane are grudgingly kind to their neighbors Colin and Sheila, a couple who don't seem to have their act together. Sheila falls for David, the lead architect on a plan that would raze a "twilight" neighborhood and put up concrete beehives in its place, and Colin retaliates by bringing a surprising amount of pressure to bear on David and Jane's weak spots. The story intertwines serious questions about urban planning, class conflict, and the little white lies people tell to smooth social interactions.
David (David Arrow) is 110 percent little boy, from the hectic way he flies in and out of the house to the near-tantrums he throws. His intense antsiness may be part of the reason he's so supremely unaware of what's going on around him, a lack that his wife Jane (Nancy Carlin) takes constant pains to remedy. And she's obviously getting tired of it. The actors make the relationship -- a marriage out of its first blush and into the steady grind of children and work -- seem familiar and true, especially in the little ways they express their frustration with the near-constant presence of the other couple. David and Jane are happy together, mostly, and give the impression of a bulletproof pairing.
Sheila and Colin, by contrast, are miserable, and their relationship reeks of a tragedy waiting to happen. Yet when the blueprints hit the fan, their falling-out takes a surprising turn, each revealing unexpected tendencies. Colin (Ron Campbell) is the only one of the four who seems to understand other people -- and the surgical way he utilizes that knowledge is vicious. Watching him emotionally abuse his wife is actively painful. While there was some tenderness between these two once, now it only manifests when Colin has begun to scheme against David. Campbell handles the unlikable Colin well, although it's a while before we understand what has made him so nasty. Araxi Djian, so tough and competent as Mary in TheatreFIRST's recent The Memory of Water, shows an entirely different side here as the downtrodden Sheila, the most emotionally transparent of the four. Sheila is in over her head, both in her own marriage and as a wistful observer of Jane and David's. Djian invests Sheila with so much longing and uncertainty that it's a relief to see her, near the end of the play, start to fight for herself.
The set of David and Jane's house, a sort of exploded blueprint that covers the back wall and extends into the stage apron, combines with a blond wood table to suggest the minimalism of David and Jane's emotional lives. Subtle sound and light cues (a clock ticking, spotlights during monologues) unobtrusively support the story. As in Copenhagen, the cumulative effect is smart and unsparing, an intelligent, incisive play to end Aurora's season.
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