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It’s unfair if Nat Benchley, the perfectly worthy author and performer of Benchley Despite Himself, seems like an underachiever after the show’s 90 agreeable minutes have elapsed. But it’s understandable, too: His grandfather—bibulous critic, comic actor, dry-witted essayist, and Algonquin round-tabler Robert Benchley, the subject of the evening’s entertainment—was a tough act to follow.
What makes Nat’s job tougher yet are the other Benchleys who’ve leapt at the bar the patriarch set so high—Nat’s brother Peter wrote a little novel about a big shark, and their father made his own splash as a novelist and screenwriter. (It must be amusing to be able, as Nat is, to illustrate family dynamics with a wistful gesture toward a Hirschfeld sketch of the clan’s three biggest names cocktailing the night away—just as it must be endlessly galling, if you’re a creative artist yourself, to be the one not pictured.) But then invidious comparisons are no small part of what Nat wants to confront: His intimidating pedigree, paired with his grandfather’s internal conflicts about a career he feared too frivolous, is what gives the “despite” in that title its mildly discontented feel.
If Nat can’t escape the shadow of what he calls “that hoary old ogre, the paternal forebear,” the forebear himself never quite shook the suspicion that he wasn’t living up to his talent. He skipped through Harvard on family connections and native wit, picking up just enough of scholarship, perhaps, to feel forever after as though he ought to be doing something serious—two decades of incisively entertaining drama criticism for Life and the New Yorker apparently not qualifying in his estimation. Jack Marshall’s program notes for this American Century Theater production sum the feeling up as “Gilbert’s Disease,” after the funnier half of Gilbert & Sullivan: “that bane of comics, that malady of the effortlessly talented…[which] causes its sufferers to discount [the thing] their genius permits them to do effortlessly.” In other words, if your job’s not torture, it can’t possibly be worth doing.
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Benchley’s wasn’t, and of course it was. But he tormented himself nonetheless, drinking more and more as he grew older without moving beyond the comic forms he’d perfected. And always—Nat is quick to note the irony—he took refuge in the very talent he privately disparaged, using his gossamer wit to dazzle the peers and public he feared would judge him if ever he let them stop laughing.
What makes the evening almost poignant is that Nat, the least successful Benchley by the measures our celebrity society likes to employ, is an actor of broader range than his grandfather, who felt no less pigeonholed as a stage and screen performer than as a writer. Here, he’s low-key and empathetic as he lays out his family’s history, droll and disarming when he takes on Robert’s persona, and witty in his own right as he sketches little portraits of Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, and the other social terrorists who anchored the Algonquin.
Nick Olcott directs the transitions from one element to the next with a steady and all-but-invisible hand; there’s nothing showy here, just quietly accomplished stagecraft that makes the most of what was clearly a lean budget.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to that sensible solidity: Though Nat’s warmhearted remembrances and psychological theories may be manna to his grandfather’s most devoted fans, Benchley Despite Himself works as an entertainment only when he steps into the old man’s shoes to deliver one of the blithe comic monologues that made the Benchley name. The melancholy truth is that neither of them would be happy to hear that.
The Kennedy Center’s latest theatrical import has all the earmarks of a good play (to steal a Robert Benchley line), except that it’s lousy.
No doubt that’s because although Stones in His Pockets indeed possesses dialogue, plot, setting, and scenery, they are respectively hackneyed, formulaic, sentimental, and chintzily minimalist. Or perhaps we can lay the blame on director Hugh Borthwick, who approaches the play—well, he approaches it very, very slowly, I have to presume, because the play seems to be backing warily away from him at the same glacial pace. (I timed it at two-and-a-half hours, but I’m sure my watch, like the man in the next row, dozed off several times.)
If you insist on knowing, Stones involves (though not very thoroughly) the inhabitants of an isolated Irish farming district, the American film crew that descends upon them to shoot a Far and Away-style star vehicle, and the havoc that ensues. Playwright Marie Jones offers several pointed observations, made with a kind of studied and enervating bluntness, about culture clash, economic exploitation, and the romanticization of rural poverty. None of it is new, and none of it is especially memorable, though the sight of actor Bronson Pinchot pretending to be a vapid sexpot of a leading lady may very well stalk my sleep forever. (Tim Ruddy, who, like Pinchot, inhabits characters ranging from film director to feckless townie, is generally agreeable.)
Stones in His Pockets might have been a neat little diversion; there’s good, if unoriginal, material in the play’s early scenes, and there’s a bit more of it lost among the endless “meaningful” stretches that its author has included instead of a second act. If Jones had resisted the allure of seriousness as gracefully as Robert Benchley did, I’d think a good deal more of her work. As it is, I think she should work a good deal less. CP