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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

The Basuto Road scheme included our very successful redevelopment of Colin and Sheila. . .A twilight area. That's what Colin and Sheila were when we started work on them. They were Like Basuto Road — full of geological faults. We got them stood up in the sunlight.
— David to his wife Jane. As for David's dream of a total change for the dreary Basutoland area, it evolves into the kind of changes, or "progressive collapse," that according to Jane marked the beginning of when people like her and David ceased to believe in change.

L-R: Walton Wilson, Barbara Sims, Corinna May, and David Adkins (Photo by Emily Faulkner)
Architect David's somewhat utopian dream of overhauling the slumlike Basuto Road residences with two life enhancing skyscrapers and a courtyard does indeed succumb to "progressive collapse" referred to in the above quote. So does David his wife Jane's relationship with their next door neighbors Sheila and Colin since it runs on a parallel course — with the more successful, self-assured couple treating their friends like a human equivalent of a flawed building site in need of their help.

The high-rise redevelopment projects like the one envisioned by David have fallen out of fashion as a way to benefit low-income occupants. But Michael Frayn's play about the events dealing with the trajectory of one such project between 1968 and 1970 holds up as a remarkable example of elegantly effective dramatic architecture. Though written in 1984, on the cusp of the Thatcher era, Benefactors is not only timely as yesterday but still a treat for anyone who appreciates solidly characterized and dynamically constructed serio-comic dramas.

Structured as a memory play, Benefactors uses audience addressing monologues to follow the Basuto Road project's ups and downs and its ripple effect on the intermingling of Ibsen-tinged social drama and personal relationship story of two marriages and a four-way friendship.

Given that this revival is being presented in the Berkshire Theatre Group's intimate Unicorn Theater, Eric Hill has had set designer John McDermott, limit the set to Jane and David's kitchen, instead of the original Broadway production's 2-home set which starred Glenn Close, Sam Waterston, Mary Beth Hurt and Simon Jones McDermott has authentically furnished the kitchen and provided just a few chairs at the side for glimpses of Sheila and Colin's interaction. The bare area encirling the set, allows the characters to effortlessly move between past and present. Adding to the pleasures of this production are outstanding performances from four Berkshire Theatre Group veterans: Real life marrieds Corinna May and David Adkins as Jane and David; and another actually married pair, Barbara Sims and Walton Wilson, as Sheila and Colin.

David Adkins' architect is full of idealistic enthusiasm, his egotistic single-mindedness offset by a discombobulated neediness that has obviously charmed his wife in sidelining her own career as an anthropologist to be his helpmeet. Corinna May, who apparently hasn't aged a whit over the many years I've followed her performances here and with Shakespeare & Company, perfectly embodies the cool and collected Jane. Her strong beneficent instincts make accommodatingly supportive of David's plan as well as the less self-sufficient Sheila. Barbara Sims brings out just the right degree of Sheila's passive-aggressive helplessness and obvious romantic feelings for David. Walton Wilson is right on the mark as the second rate journalist, who has nothing but disdain his former schoolmate and his ineffective wife It will come as no surprise that he turns into the friend who makes enemies unnecessary.

With a pivotal character who's an architect, Benefactors more than ever showcases Michael Frayn's gift for utilizing an architect's construction system in the interest hilarious farce (Noises Off) and mind-stretching dramatic story telling. — and never repeating himself. Benefactors, with its mix of comedy and drama falls somewhere between and the mind stretchers. like Copenhagen ( Curtainup's review) and Democracy ( Curtainup's review). The Broadway production of the latter featured James Naughton as West Germany Chancelor Willy Brandt who will be starring in Berkshire Theater Group's new solo play, Cedars.

Bravo to every member of the creative team for giving Berkshire theater goers to see this excellent production of Mr. Frayn's rarely done, mind-stretching play.

Benefactors by Michael Frayn
Directed by Eric Hill
Cast: David Adkins (David), Corinna May (Jane), Barbara Sims (Sheila), Walton Wilson (Colin)
Scenic design: John McDermott
Costumes{ David Murin
Lighting: Shawn E. Boyle
Composer: Scott Killian
Dialect coach: David Alan Stern
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, includes 1 intermission
From 7/09/14; opening 7/12/14; closing 7/26/14 Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge Reviewed by Elyse Somer at July 12th opening performance
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