from The Inquirer and Mirror , Nantucket, Mass., August 1997
Nat Benchley hits the mark in his portrayal of grandfather
By Dionis Gauvin
I&M Staff Writer
In the opening section of his one-man performance entitled “Benchley Despite Himself,” Nat Benchley admits his grandfather, Robert Benchley, used alcohol to avoid anything resembling self-analysis.
However, the performance was a skillful attempt to put Robert Benchley’s personality and career in perspective, and analyze the roots of his intelligent and lively sense of humor.
Nat Benchley began the play as himself, gradually slipping into the role of his grandfather, even combing cream into his hair and slicking it back in true (Robert) Benchley style. He also entertained the audience with a rapid series of jokes and parodies of his grandfather’s mock lectures.
The central prop was a photograph of a smiling Robert Benchley, placed atop a stack of four books on the desk the actor sat behind. Others included an armchair, a blackboard for the lectures, and a typewriter.
The actor began his performance talking about his own difficulty in wrestling with his grandfather, whom he called a “complex forebear.” He also expressed frustration with the praises others continually gave his grandfather and their sentimental memories of him.
However, Benchley’s determination to find out the dirt about his complex forebear doesn’t result in a sensational or reductive portrayal. Instead, he manages to capture the elusive qualities of Benchley, and still provide the audience with spare, yet important, details about the forces underlying his grandfather’s career as a humorist.
For example, he repeats a comment by James Thurber, who said that Benchley’s “wheel of invention” was turned by his melancholy. At this moment in the play, the smiling portrait of Robert serves an ironic function.
Throughout the performance, Nat Benchley refuses to slip into sentimentality, while still conveying his deep admiration for his grandfather, refusing to let the complexity of his personality hide behind the guise of humor.
At the end, he says that he wanted to let his grandfather know that he had done much more than his demons would admit. Robert Benchley constantly beat himself up for not producing enough work or what he considered “serious” work, while producing a prolific body of screenwriting, magazine columns, theatre reviews, and short stories.
Near the close of the play, the actor admits that he hasn’t yet found a way to pay adequate tribute to Robert Benchley or to give him peace about his career. However, he doesn’t end the performance on a grave note. He ends by repeating lines from Benchley’s advice on why a boy needs a dog: to teach him fidelity, perseverance, and to turn three times around before lying down.
In true Benchley style, he ends the play on a note of humor.