No Self Benefaction

What does it mean when you're not getting the roles you think you can handle? That you're not talented? Or that it's all a question of who you know? Lisa Marie Singerman has decided to circumvent those issues. After four years of murder mysteries, community theater and frustration, the actress is producing Michael Frayn's Benefactors -- and acting as her own benefactor. She can, in other words, find a certain degree of righteousness in saying that she slept with herself to get her part. Or is it self-righteousness?

"I'm well aware of the argument: If this person thinks she's good enough to be in this, then why isn't she in other shows?" Singerman reasoned a few weeks ago during a lunch break from rehearsals. "For one thing, casting in this town is a cliquish Catch-22. If you're in the loop and competent, you'll be cast by significant companies. But you can't be cast if you're not in the loop. I'm trying to fight this. I'm trying to be seen."

Citing the fact that Benefactors is an ensemble show -- that if she really wanted to trumpet herself she would've picked a starring vehicle -- Singerman, whose vocation is teaching acting in The Woodlands, mostly to children, hopes people won't see this venture as a vanity production. "I just want to work," she says.

So is Singerman just fooling herself? In principle, no. What's wrong with mounting your own show? So many Hollywood performers have production companies that it's almost de rigueur. If you can swing it, why not do it? On a more modest level, off-Broadway is partly fueled by such can-do (will-do?) attitude.

But then you have to put your mouth where your money is, and it's here that Singerman really needs to be judged. Not for nothing has Singerman named her fledgling company JM -- Just Me -- Productions. On the one hand, she does okay in Benefactors. On the other hand, she does okay in Benefactors. Meaning that for better and for worse she's nothing to write home about. She hasn't wasted her money, but she doesn't especially reap dividends. The bottom line is that the production deserves more attention than she does.

Benefactors bears less resemblance to playwright Frayn's best-known work, the just-plain-fun Noises Off, than to the numerous Chekhov plays he's translated, albeit with much less resonance. Benefactors tells the story of David, an idealistic architect commissioned to build low-income housing, his disaffected wife Jane, and the ramshackle neighbors they take on as a "cause" -- the sardonic intellectual failure Colin and his haplessly sincere wife Sheila. The plan is for a ludicrously inappropriate high-rise scheme, and no sooner does David start to believe that it just might work than the fashion for high-rises comes under attack. Among its biggest critics are Colin, who -- no hard feelings -- thinks he finds a reason to live by undermining it. Sheila, thinking she's found a reason to live as David's secretary, is so neurotic that she inadvertently undermines the project, too. Jane, heretofore at a distance, finds herself in the thick of not knowing whom to support.

Depicting the hypocrisy of good intentions in one's personal, interpersonal and public lives, the self-evident play is more intimate than political, though it intends otherwise. It's more about marriages than messages, and so while the play sometimes stings, it also smacks of familiarity and of easy thematics. There's more ready humor than unsettling bite. Good but minor, Benefactors does carry with it certain acclaim -- but with Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Simon Jones and Mary Beth Hurt as the original cast, what wouldn't?

Since Singerman put up the money, it's only right to deal with her first. (She preferred not to talk about dollars, explaining that she didn't want to "set up" audience expectations; when you factor in rights fees, theater rental, marketing and what have you, she must have spent at least a couple of grand.) What she does best is convey how much of a dormouse Sheila is; in a most natural, affecting way, Singerman opens her mouth as if she wants to speak but just can't, lays a protective hand across her chest and hangs her head worriedly. But Sheila is also a doormat, not in the least because she walks all over herself, and Singerman has trouble with the echoes of Sheila's yearnings to be like Colin, like Jane, like David, like anybody; to be loved by Colin, by Jane, by David, by anybody (Singerman also has considerable trouble with a British accent). She does make Sheila a reluctant liver of a muted life, but she needs to be so pathetic that we both laugh at, and with, and feel sorry for her. This is, after all, a character who insists she can be happy. Sheila is lacking; so is Singerman.

As Colin, Jeremy Johnson occasionally approaches the character's angry charisma; but the actor brings the same physical imminence and menacing insinuation to all the rogue roles I've seen him in. I mean this as both commendation and criticism: he succeeds most when he doesn't talk. Though he seems to give off a devil-may-care-attitude, his eyes betray an attentive, reflective intelligence that does in fact care what other people think. Mary Hooper mistakenly thinks that a parading gait and an incantatory voice will make her version of Jane clever, worldly and superior. If she'd only inverse the palpable sexual tension between her and Johnson, her character would seem vibrantly real. Andy Nelson is a real nice guy as David, but Nelson is so subdued as he modulates between a mild self-torture and a low-key paternalism that he nearly erases his character altogether.

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.

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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Peter Szatmary