nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
July 17, 2009
Benny, John Montgomery Theatre Company's entry in the Midtown International Theatre Festival, begins in a taxi cab with a conversation between Anna, the play's heroine, and a very strange and intrusive cab driver. The stilted (and unwanted) discussion centers on the nature of identity and a human being's need to know where they came from. This quickly descends into an awkward and inappropriate seduction which sends Anna running from the car in what I later realized was a state of panic, not only angry at the inappropriate gesture but subtly confused by the truth of the driver's unwanted counsel.
Anna has a couple of issues to deal with, more than a couple really. The first is that she's adopted and struggling with her decision to search for the parents who gave her up. Secondly, she has bipolar disorder, a diagnosis she has difficulty controlling and that causes the men in her life to treat her with what can be described as condescending sensitivity. This only compounds the torment she experiences in trying to add a modicum of sanity to her life.
Then there is her husband, an alcoholic named Shane who refuses to take any responsibility for his behavior or their life together and whose contributions to controlling the emotional complexities of their marriage are charm, manipulation, and a stiff sock in the jaw. There is also Max, the son of her father's business partner, who, as an adult, begins an affair with her at the tender age of 12, which both families conveniently ignore.
Anna encounters more obstacles—the ghost of her stillborn brother; a relentlessly oblivious birth mother; a creepy and sexually suggestive psychiatrist—but you get the idea. Suzanne Bachner's script piles on the conflicts, presenting Anna's life as seriously unhinged. It is to the play's credit and detriment that it leaves her without a wall, a jamb, or a post onto which she can attach herself.
Benny works best by throwing Anna into situations from which it is impossible for her to get her bearings. Max, for instance, loves her like a little sister yet treats her like a sex toy, refusing to touch her but reaping the benefits of her idolatry with a stream of never ending blowjobs. Marcie, Anna's birth mother, revels in the fantasy of family that Anna represents but her lifelong absence relieves her of having to engage in the more intimate and complicated aspects of her daughter's personality. Bachner refuses to infuse these encounters with sentimentality or emotional clarity and the result illustrates the ironies and limitations of Anna's journey: the stability she seeks from the people she cares for only serves to distance her from what she hopes will be its benefits.
But by painting her life and her journey in such unforgiving terms, Bachner and Minskoff fail to delve into the characters' humanity, making these characters far less complex than is than the play demands. This was brought to light when the friend I went with, on the way home, complained that she didn't know why this company chose to tell this story. Some of this has to do with its fragmented structure, which shifts from past to present in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to understand what scene we're watching and what it has to do with the scene prior to it and its relation to the overall story. But the majority of it has to do with the characters' lack of need for one another. Other than Anna searching for an anchor, the stakes aren't high for anyone else. There's never a context for Max's desire for Anna's adoration. We never see what Shane's manipulation of Anna does for his sense of masculinity or his ego. And in the case of Anna's father, the kindest character in the show, we never see his role in his daughter's instability or the effect it has on him.
These things seem incredibly important in a play that depends on interactions between characters. The actors all do fine work but their characters are left without a purpose which would help the story take flight.