Nanique Gheridian doesn't get out enough. There are probably good reasons for this — being one of the big cheesettes at Palm Beach Dramaworks probably keeps her busy — but still. She's smart. She's seen what theater looks like in the companies forced to create good drama without her presence, and unless she suffers from hideously low self-esteem or an almost saint-like surplus of modesty, she must know how much she's needed out there.
I am new to this idea, because Gheridian doesn't act much, but others have surely noticed. Everything about her is overwhelmingly communicative: her bottomless smiles; her busy, thinking eyes; the disarmingly conversational drift of her lines that can blind you to just how much thought the woman has given to even her teensiest inflections. Gheridian's awesome, just awesome, and I'll stress again that she's onstage only rarely. I do this in the hope that you'll run, skip, fly to Palm Beach Dramaworks to see her in Benefactors before it closes.
Benefactors is a Michael Frayn joint from 1984, and it's a good script for smart actors. Frayn is a writer blessed with an outsized imagination — his dialogue is ornate, almost baroque, but unfailingly realist, and he has a knack for imagining the small nooks and crannies of the minds of characters who, in life, could not be more distant from him. He can and has put good small talk in the mouths of the key players in the Guillaume Affair as well as physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. What in his life has prepared him to explore these minds is anybody's guess. I, for one, have no idea how physicists go about shooting the shit. Architects either, for that matter, though I think I have a clearer idea after seeing Benefactors.
Benefactors is a play constructed out of fast-moving conversations and even faster ideas. Early in the show, you may worry you'll be lost among the talk's sudden jabs and parries. You won't. As things move along, as Dramaworks' cast members add flesh to their characters, you learn their tricks and tics, and the slightly faster-than-life rhythms of their chatter begins to seem normal.
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And the characters, in turn, begin to seem a little sick. Benefactors is the story of two married couples — David and Jane, played by Michael St. Pierre and Irene Adjan, and Colin and Sheila, played by Todd Allen Durkin and Gheridian — who damage each other terribly, though they mostly have the best of intentions. St. Pierre's David is an architect, a fellow with a modernist personal ethos and a modernist professional aesthetic who believes that time, patience, good-heartedness, and right thinking can straighten out just about anything, be it a slum or a marriage. Adjan's Jane is his professional assistant, and she is a conscience-driven critter — a lady who will gamely help anyone with anything, hiding her own mounting resentment all the while. Despite their small failures as people, the couple work well together. Not like the couple across the street. Durkin's Colin and Gheridian's Sheila cannibalized each other a long time ago, and already, when the play begins, their relationship seems like the bombed-out site of some previous, terrible drama. Colin is a small and mean-spirited man whose sharp good humor hides his contempt for everything and everyone less tethered to the ugly realities of life than he is — hides it from everyone, that is, except for his wife. Sheila is the kind of broken woman who doesn't say much, who spends all day smiling a nervous smile and laughing a nervous laugh in the hopes that the smallness of her gestures might render her invisible to the louder and stronger people around her.
The first third of the play is disquieting. It presents us with these characters doing normal, friendly, domestic things — eating and talking, mostly — even while we get the sense that they are all somehow ill and that their good-natured banter is a sham. We're right, though at first the signs are small and innocent. Faced with the prospect of dinner at Colin and Sheila's house, David half-jokes, "No-no-no-no-no. I can't. I'm ill. I've got architect's elbow." After parting company one night, the couples talk minor trash about each other: David and Jane talk about all of Sheila's "little embarrassed laughs," while Colin, feeling (rightly) like a charity case, tells Sheila, "We make them feel good. It's our one contribution to the world." Soon, David's designs for both the unhappy couple across the street and for a huge construction project in a slum called Basuto Road become too large, and the play morphs into profound examination of the intractability of human nature, the danger of good intentions, and the ways in which human beings can and cannot change.
This is done with a sensitivity and a sensibility that is almost superhuman. Relationships between people and situations and words, ordinarily vague and ambiguous in life and theater, are so clearly delineated here that Benefactors is as much a diagram as a play. There is meaning and atmospheric punch in the way David and Jane's big, homey house seems to eclipse the smaller, exposed-brick home of Colin and Sheila: It's like the big house is trying to squeeze the unhappy couple out of existence. The queer longing in Gheridian's voice as she raves about "the fresh, tidy smell of clean clothes" in David and Jane's drawers; the casual contempt in Durkin's when he says "You disgust me"; the ever-mounting anger in Adjan's eyes as she keeps silent about her husband's blithe hubris; the faraway and happy look in St. Pierre's as he insists that even Colin can be saved from his own bitterness if only people are a bit nicer to him — there is so much pitch-perfect drama in Dramaworks' show that you can't imagine anybody seeing deeper into Frayn's vision or so perfectly capturing its multiple subtleties. If the show is a diagram, it's a creepy and exhilarating one, filled with portent not just for the characters on stage, but for anyone driven by the same impulses that drive them. Since Benefactors deals in nearly universal impulses, that means everybody.
This, by the way, is precisely the kind of work that Palm Beach Dramaworks does best: talky dramas that are long on ideas and short on bombast. Dramaworks has just announced its 2008-09 season, and I am happy to tell you it contains O'Neill, Ionesco, and Albee — all playwrights who would have a hard time finding better homes in South Florida. Have fun.