Potomac Stages review

from Potomac Stages, February 8, 2003

Benchley Despite Himself

If you already love the humor of Robert Benchley, you will love this show by his grandson which mixes biographical information, analytical opinion and a generous helping of the original wit of the man. If, instead, you are simply intrigued by the history of the gentle soul who combined nonsense humor with mild self-depreciation, you will find much to contemplate in this rambling rumination by a descendent with an uncanny resemblance to the humorist. If you come to this cold, however, you may wonder just what all the fuss is about. Still, you will find yourself laughing at a good deal of the material.

Storyline: The grandson of Robert Benchley tries to explain to the audience both the public successes of his grandfather and the life he took such pains to keep private. Robert Benchley was one of Broadway’s best known critics in the 1920s and 30s, a successful author of humorous short stories and sketches and the author and star of a number of Hollywood short subjects into the 1940s. The grandson delivers some of the grandfather’s funniest material is in his effort to explain both the attraction of his humor and the way it deflected attention from his private world.

Robert Benchley’s output of seemingly effortless humor fills many volumes. He published a dozen compilations during his lifetime with titles that reflected his unique mixture of whimsy and nonsense – titles like “The Treasurer’s Report & Other Aspects of Community Singing” and “My Ten Years In a Quandary.” The former contained, as the title piece, perhaps his most famous standup comedy routine. “The Treasurer’s Report” became one of the very first talking short films, the success of which launched both a new film genre and the movie career of its author. His fifty short films included classics like “The Sex Life of the Polyp.” Watching Nat Benchley perform material from these shorts is very much like watching the originals. He is uncanny in his ability to use the genetic gifts of his family tree and his own skills as a professional actor to bring his grandfather’s public persona to life.

The script also generously samples Robert Benchley’s great record of throw away one-liners that seemed so genuine and revealed a deep affection for language as well as a twist of mind that was absolutely unique. Who but Benchley would wire from Venice “Streets all full of water – please advise”? Who but Benchley would say “a boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down”? Who else would say ” It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous”? But Nat Benchley manages to pull these and many other famous lines together without fulfilling another of his grandfather’s famous observations: “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.” Instead, he makes a human being out of the public comic….