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No Self Benefaction

The production of Benefactors overshadows its producer

If the cast isn't particularly memorable one way or another, the set is. Chase Staggs transforms the shallow Curtains' rectangle of a stage into a seemingly wide-open space of shrewdly constructed carpenter-like impressions that geometrically suggest the configurations of the characters' psyches: bare wooden steps leading up to and away from an equally elemental platform; flown frames of two-by-fours of various heights and depths; white screens floated against a sprawling gray wall. So economically associative is Staggs' design with the "shape" of things that Ingmar Bergman would be intrigued.

But the biggest intrigue in the Houston premiere of Benefactors is watching forceful director Vicki Weathersby refuse to let go of her vision of the text. Though she exhibits an occasional playful touch, such as having the phone ring in such a way that it actually talks Sheila into picking it up, Weathersby is determined (sometimes too determined) to downplay the humor and flesh out the important underpinnings, as if by her impressive will alone she can bulk up what's really a lightweight text.

Some of her devices work well -- having characters with their backs to the audience to communicate how "hidden" they are -- others add agendas that the text doesn't deal with, such as making the characters drink as much as the Tyrone family in Long Day's Journey into Night. But the most interesting development is her staunch blurring of naturalism and realism. She leaves actors on-stage during what Frayn writes as being others' monologues delivered to the audience; sometimes they react to what they're hearing, sometimes it's as if they're not even there. For the first hour or so, this technique adds tension that the text doesn't seem to bear out, and thus Weathersby appears to be deconstructing Frayn for reasons too much her own. But by intermission, when Frayn has made it clear how inextricably bound the characters are, the stage -- thanks to Weathersby's single-mindedness -- is humming with complications. The pay off takes awhile, but it's huge.

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What Weathersby does is make the show grow on you like a nagging thought, and while Frayn would probably tell her to lighten up, he'd also be beholden to her for raising the stakes he only marginally antes up. But it really is wishful thinking on her part to close the play with lines from The Master Builder (as well as litter the program with blurbs from such thinkers as H.L. Mencken and Thomas Carlyle). Ibsen's classic conflict between the individual and society just doesn't elevate Frayn by association. Rather than foist Ibsen onto Frayn, Weathersby -- who's the one Benefactors person who should finance her own shows, and who in fact has independently mounted two dynamically thoughtful offerings, The Balcony at the Artery earlier this summer and Rhinoceros at Commerce Street Art Warehouse late last season -- should find some dough to pony up and go riding with the Norwegian master. With her dramaturgical pedigree, creative fervor and demanding energy, who knows how far they could go.

Benefactors plays weekends through September 10 at Curtains, 3722 Washington Avenue, 522-0908.

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