In "Benefactors" which came to the Atkinson last evening, Michael Frayn has attempted nothing less than to show, in dramatic terms, the subtle and unpredictable play of light and dark across people's lives, and all the grays in between.
While the current production staged by the indispensable Michael Blakemore is not quite as fine tuned as last season's London original, Frayn's ever-shifting interplay of high and low spirits remains a fascinating and affecting exercise.
Two couples, David and Jane (Sam Waterston and Glenn Close), and Colin and Sheila (Simon Jones and Mary Beth Hurt) intermingle over the span of a dozen years on Michael Annals' almost bare stage, half warm brown wood and the other dark gray, with a few doorways for hasty entraces and exits.
Jane reflects on the cloud that began to block the sunlight 12 years before, and we return to the time when David, an amgbitious young architect, is excited about a plan for razing a shabby section of South London in order to erect new housing. Because of one thind and another - the high cost, access denials, other obstacles raised by the city council - the project is finally abandoned. But not until the lives of these couples, now grown so much older, have altered in unexected ways.
Colin and Sheila, who seem like close friends of David and Jane since they're always dropping in on and sponging off them, are actually a disorienting pair. As David's project appears headed for success, Colin, a part-time journalist, beguns a cynical effort to destroy it by starting a movement to save the area. He actually moves into one of the old houses as tenants are being evicted, and while he is squatting there, Jane drifts into the employ of a rehabilitation unit operating elsewhere in London, placing her at odds with David.
But these are merely the physical shifts of current. Frayn is more interested in what lies between the actions and spoken words, in the silent changes of attitude that in time make people, even people remaining together in a kind of comfort, different from their former selves.
Close, Waterston and Jones all give efficient and often incisive performances, but it is Hurt, as the seemingly defenseless and incompetent Sheila, who most lifts Frayn's astonishing play to its aching surface.
It is small wonder that Frayn has spent so much time translating and redefining Chekhov (his "Wild Honey," due here next season, is a reshaping of a early unpublished Chekhov work). For Frayn's work - excepting the farce "Noises off" - contains that same intermingling of humor and rue that can (though not in "Benefactors") lead to tragedy. We leave "Benefactors" quite suddenly, relationships changed but not startlingly so unless we look back, say, a dozen years or so.
Not for the first time I find myself wondering what a Michael Frayn play is really about. The wondering this time is occasioned by last night's arrival at the Brooks Atkinson Theater of his London hit Benefactors.
I imagine this four-in-hand study of the shifting and intermingling emotional relationships between two couples may well enjoy the same success in New York as it had in London.
It is, of course, awfully English, so it may even have the added thrill of armchair tourism for this country, and Frayn has pinned down his even carefully named people with seeming accuracy.
David Kitzinger (Sam Waterston) is a rising architect. Jane, his wife (Glenn Close), is an anthropologist, whi helps him secretarially and also on the city-planning, human-resources aspects of his work.
Their friends, Colin Molyneux (Simon Jones), a not very successful journalist, and his wife Sheila (Mary Beth Hurt), a former nurse now simply a mildly incompetent housekeeper, are almost entirely dependent upon the Kitzingers.
The Molyneuxs and their children have become virtually part of a Kitzinger extended family. Yet the relationship is more symbiotic that might seem on the surface.
While the Molyneuxs may be parasites, they repay their hosts, their benefactors, in emotional terms. After all, each couple gives the other something to talk about.
But there are hidden depths lurking beneath out four people, even as they carefully perform roles, specially sepeceted and adopted, for the games they play.
The depths are charged and explode when David gets an assignment from the local housing authority to redevelop a slum site in South London, and decides that the only way he can achieve the desired zoning density of 200 persons per acre is to build up, skywards.
He conceives a plan involving two slab blocks 50 stories high, which would be the tallest housing development ever conceived in Europe.
Colin opposes the plan - largely because he enviously hates his old college chum, and can see that the scheme runs against current popular opinion.
More interestingly, Jane, for purely humanistic reasons, favoring the rehabilitation of old neigborhoods rather than their total rebuilding, finds herself, also, more and more in opposition to her husband.
At the end, the characters - "middle-aged children" someone calls them - have learned more about themselves than we have. Yet they have scarcely changed, merely interreacted predictably with trite circumstances.
At one point Frayn mentions Ibsen's The Master Builder, and it may be that, like Ibsen, in, say, An Enemy of the People, he is trying to contrast private action with public morality. But he doesn't do that.
His customary flair for theatricality here creaks just a little. The Pirandellian asides to the audience, often with the rest of the cast caught in a cinematic freeze-frame, and his characters' Rashomon-like views of differing perceptions of reality, are altogether too contrived.
Contrivance - and mannerism aping style - is also very much at the heart of Michael Blakemore's ceremonious staging, studded with studied performances that might have limped straight out the Masterpiece Theater.
Miss Close is fine, far more spontaneous than the others, and, as a result more vibrant. The other performacne of real note - deliverately and ornately measured - is Mr. Jones as the loathsome, stygian Colin, a fallen Lucifer with no redeeming social value.
His is, by a country mile, Frayn's best observed character - a new-style Elizabethan malcontent for a new Elizabethan age.
Mr. Waterston is quite convinving as the self-duped David. he crinkles both his eyes and his voice remarkably like Alan Bates, until he is almost seems to be providing a lively but puzzling caricature of that distinguished English actor.
Neverthless he is not bad, any more than is Mary Beth Hurt as the State Registered Nurse and best friend who falls silently in love with him. Miss Hurt and Mr.Blackmore are exceptionally good in registering the nurse's social differences with the other three.
The scenery by Michael Annals and the costumes by John Dunn seem the same as in London, as does the play.
Well, it is certainly good to have some kind of social drama on Broadway - but one wonders whether the drama is all the relevant or its characters all that immediate.
But it should be - given a little critical luck - a snob success, or succes d'estime, as they prefer to say in the business.
When last heard from, in the uproarious ''Noises Off,'' the English playwright Michael Frayn was demonstrating how the clockwork machinery of farce falls crazily apart when careless actors lose their props, drink too much and tumble down stairs. ''Benefactors,'' Mr. Frayn's equally dazzling new play at the Atkinson, would seem a complete departure: It's a comedy only in the darkest sense.
Yet the two works are connected -and not only by the extraordinary talent of their author or by the superbly acted productions, both under the unerring direction of Michael Blakemore, that have brought them to New York. As ''Noises Off'' was set within the perfect order of theatrical farce, so ''Benefactors'' unfolds within the idealized order of modern liberal society: the setting is a late-1960's London community of happy families, good neighbors and utopian political credos. But in this world - the real world, not the theater - it's a matter for heartbreak, not laughter, when people get careless. It is, as one character explains, ''like one of those bad dreams when you suddenly realize something has gone wrong.'' What comes crashing down in ''Benefactors'' are marriages, principles and, most unsettling of all, man's plaintive and often sustaining faith in personal and social change.
''People - that's what wrecks all our plans,'' says Mr. Frayn's protagonist, David (Sam Waterston), a well-meaning architect who dreams of ''building the new world we're all going to be living in.'' ''Benefactors'' tells of how David designs a redevelopment project for a South London slum neighborhood known as Basuto Road - only to discover that practicalities breed compromise (''In the end, it's not art, it's mathematics'') and that the beneficiaries of his scheme don't even want the ''New York-style skyscrapers'' he envisions for them.
The play's story also concerns David's marriage to Jane (Glenn Close), a cool and capable anthropologist, and the couple's relationship to their neighbors and presumed best friends, Colin (Simon Jones) and Sheila (Mary Beth Hurt). Colin, a hack journalist who joins with the Basuto Road protesters, may want to destroy his old pal David; Sheila, a former nurse, loves David from a lonely, unacknowledged distance.
Such is Mr. Frayn's prowess as a theatrical architect that ''Benefactors'' has as many levels as David's projected housing towers. This is not a problem play about urban planning, and neither is it a domestic drama about a would-be extramarital love triangle. Told in flashback 10 or 15 years after the events it describes -and narrated, in turn, by each of the four characters - this prismatic work circumscribes the disillusionment of an era, no less American than English, in which grandiose dreams of a universally benevolent democracy died. ''Basuto Road. There's the whole history of human ideas in that one name,'' says David. Basuto Road - which dates back to the 19th-century, when England still had its African empire - eventually stands as a comic graveyard not merely for the vanished imperial West but also for the dashed hopes of the enlightened welfare state that replaced it.
Mr. Frayn dramatizes his dour view of civilization in both public and private configurations. As the title indicates, everyone in ''Benefactors'' wants to help other people. Although on opposite sides of the skyscraper debate, both David and Colin see themselves as helping the city and the poor. As nearly inseparable neighbors, each couple presumes to be helping to prop up the rocky marriage of the other. But Mr. Frayn upholds the principle, as Colin states it, ''that other people's lives are at least as complicated as your own.'' Is David really trying to build a better world in Basuto Road, or is he merely erecting (pun intended by the playwright) a monument to his own ego? In protesting David's plans, is Colin fighting for social good or venting his jealousy at a more successful friend? Which marriage, if either, is really unhappy? Which characters are really the do-gooders, which the destroyers?
The answers to these and other questions keep changing, never to be firmly resolved. The evening's final image - of David overhearing a poor Basuto Road woman laughing, but having no idea of ''what she was laughing about'' - is emblematic of the entire work. Just as the schemes of social reformers can fail because the reformers don't understand the people they want to help, so Mr. Frayn's two couples constantly misjudge each other, naively mistaking evil for good, selfishness for charity. The characters kill with kindness as often as they help, and, for all their daily intimacies, remain strangers. In separate incidents, Sheila and Jane each get a chance to sneak around and examine the private nooks of the other's house; both find their best friends' dwellings as mysterious as if the families had never met.
In favor of benefaction but despairing of its attainment, Mr. Frayn aches for all four characters and for the unseen inhabitants of Basuto Road. The engineering term ''progressive collapse'' - a potential calamity in high-rise structures -carries a sad double meaning throughout the evening. Mr. Frayn doesn't see society or his characters progressing. At the end we do hear much talk about rehabilitation and change - and, indeed, in the plot sense, all four lives (as well as ''public opinion'' about urban development) have been dramatically altered. But the people haven't so much changed as adjusted (with or without psychiatric help).
''Life goes around like a wheel,'' says Colin. ''People don't know what they want until they've got it,'' says Sheila. According to David, even ''new and amazing'' architecture leaves a site looking ''the same as before.'' Its allusions to ''The Master Builder'' notwithstanding, ''Benefactors'' is particularly reminiscent of Chekhov (of whom Mr. Frayn is a foremost translator). The evening's chipper ending, in which survival and wisdom prove to be life's pyrrhic victories, is about as happy as that of ''The Sea Gull.''
The writing in ''Benefactors'' is as meticulously conceived in a witty, poetic vein as the farcical mechanics were in ''Noises Off.'' The imagery of the opening monologue - with its delicate play of clouds and sunlight, present and past - establishes the kaleidoscopic method used throughout. Further enhancement is provided by Martin Aronstein's quicksilver lighting, which conducts its own precise drama of light and dark on the stylized Michael Annals set depicting the two interlocking households. And Mr. Blakemore, as always, brings amazingly modest ingenuity to the text. Although Act I still feels a bit attenuated, the recast New York ''Benefactors'' seems to exceed the London version in speed and warmth.
Miss Close is at her most commanding as the strongest of the four characters, the feet-on-the-ground wife of a head-in-the-clouds architect. Striking just the right balance of heartiness and chill, the actress makes us see the ''blackness'' she shares with the destructive neighbor Colin, whom Mr. Jones plays with immaculately sinister wit. As seemingly the most fragile of the quartet, the lovesick and loveless Sheila, Miss Hurt gives what may be the performance of her stage career: Her mousy, awkward Englishwoman, poised constantly between airy fits of giggles and wrenching sobs, is as wounding a comic creation as the antithetical Southern siren the actress memorably played in ''Crimes of the Heart.''
Mr. Waterston is at first woolly in his Englishness, but his performance reaches a brilliant pitch in Act II as David ceases to be a ''bemused neutral observer'' of the conflicts around him and starts to become their victim. By the end, he is the embodiment of a devastating play: Once a bright-eyed young man fired by magical visions of saving humanity, Mr. Waterston's architect gradually slouches with age and disappointment, his spirit spent by the exhaustion of saving no one but himself.