The play examines the relationship between two married couples. One of the men is David, an architect in charge of designing some council flats in a poor part of South London. The other man's wife, Sheila, takes a job as David's assistant. She works in his house as "a kind of secretary, like." The reason for this awkward arrangement is that Sheila's depressed; David and his wife, Jane, take her on as a charity case, giving her a reason to get away from her own house and kids. David and Jane are benefactors: One builds low-income flats and sensitively tears out his hair when he realizes the project may have to be a pair of ugly concrete skyscrapers; the other pretends not to care as she puts Sheila in a position to screw her husband.
Whether they screw is not quite clear from the play, but she does become housekeeper and nanny for Jane. Soon it's, "Sheila, darling, could you be an absolute dear, after you pick up Lizzie could you give the children their tea?" and, "How did we ever manage without you?" Sheila's housekeeping for Colin, her husband, falls apart, and so does their marriage. "We did everything we could to help them, we truly did," says Jane at the end of the first act. "Yes," David answers. "And if we hadn't tried to help them, they'd still be together."
The play reminds me of "More Stately Mansions" because the rival men come from slightly different social layers. The Updike story has a rising, preppy schoolteacher facing off against a rich, declining (and drunk) lawyer who leads political protests in their small Massachusetts town. In the play, David is a rising architect in tweed blazers; Colin wears posh turtlenecks, has some kind of gentleman's editing job, and discovers, in the wreckage of his marriage, the joys of NIMBY activism (against David's skyscrapers). Frayn and Updike both have a sharp eye for the vagaries of shifting classes -- how the up-and-coming start to act lordly, how the already-rich turn to revolt -- and it's good to see so much penetrating social observation on an American stage. In Benefactors the women are also mixed; Jane seems too posh for David, and Sheila is lower-class, vulnerable, almost out of her depth with Colin.
Benefactors opened to strong reviews in London in 1984, and there's no special reason to revive it now aside from the fact that the Aurora Theatre always finds nuanced, intelligent plays to put on. Joy Carlin's production moves at a steady clip. J.B. Wilson's set consists of a dining room table on a clever blueprint stage, with gray rods tracing an architect's sketch of doors against a blue background. Derek Duarte's lights lower during the monologues to isolate this or that actor; the play shifts from dialogue to first-person narrative every few minutes. It's all very well presented, but what the show still lacks is a molten, intimate realism that the script seems to beg for, the kind of deep naturalism Tom Ross, the Aurora's managing director, conjured for Abigail's Party at the City Club a few years ago. David Arrow (as David) and Ron Campbell (as Colin) both put on pompous accents that don't seem quite real. They go for big gestures and bluff, loud voices even though the Aurora space is small -- maybe to make sure the white-haired subscribers can hear them.
The women do better. Nancy Carlin (the director's daughter) is natural and crisp as Jane, with an inaccessible English heart but also a flaring temper. Araxi Djian does the most powerful work as Sheila, maybe because Sheila's so pathetic -- wide-eyed, hesitant, full of envy for her busy friends. During one quiet scene, she and Colin have an argument in low voices while a clock ticks softly. "You're the only one of us without a sense of humor," Colin complains, "and you're the only one who ever laughs. ... You're deaf to all shades of relation and meaning." Sheila says nothing, but her feelings are hard to miss in Djian's eyes.
Fans of Frayn's big shows may be surprised by how conventional Benefactors feels; with American characters it could be a movie starring Alan Alda (remember The Four Seasons?). Still, it's a finely observed, involving story that rounds out a solid first season for the Aurora in its spanking-new downtown space.