Theater Spotlight review

From Theater Spotlight

The Benchleys: Wordsmiths Extraordinaires
Benchley Despite Himself

By Anne James, Staff Writer

Nat Benchley’s perceptive and thoroughly-researched tribute to his grandfather currently playing at The American Century Theater may be entitled Benchley Despite Himself, but I guarantee that you will “laugh in spite of yourself” throughout the evening.  The grandson Benchley mixes, in Homeric fashion, the proper proportion of narrative with declamations by the character himself.  And the rare joy of experiencing the work of not only a fine actor, but also an intelligent and literary one, makes this production more than just a must-see.  It nearly demands that you see — and hear and think — through it a second, or even third performance.

Brilliant in the juxtaposition of episodes, in order of creative development rather than a drab chronological time frame, actor Benchley takes us to a time of innocent but often rapacious wit and the birth of talking movies before the advent of Technicolor.  Weaving the short comic films with rare insights into closely guarded family secrets, his skill in telling the story seems to be rooted in a passion for familial self-knowledge.  Yet Nat never comes off as a cheap imitation of his grandfather’s ingenuity.  It gives today’s Benchley a vulnerability and self-effacing charm as an actor.  He speaks honestly of his Yankee forefather’s sense of guilt at succeeding without working, but then almost immediately counters this sentiment with a senior Benchley’s verbal creation that must have demanded deep thought and astuteness.

All this Benchleyesque brilliance was fueled by the times and the place.  Consider for a moment the challenge of being, on a regular basis, with the likes of Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, George S. Kaufman, and Marc Connelly.  As Nat Benchley tells the story of the Algonquin Round Table, it is as if he has inherited the imagination; as if he can take you there by way of a genetic magic.  And then there is the bittersweetness of it all — to be the grandson, charged by his legacy, to look beneath the parodies and the nonsense at the melancholy that rested so near the surface.

This is a beautifully-structured story told with affection for a famous forefather but also a true lover of the English language. Add to that the skillful hand of director Nick Olcott, a life-long Robert Benchley devotee, and the evening sings.   Kudos also to TACT for its Reflections series of illustrious Americans.  Every one of these productions has gone past the capsule-cameo of celebrity into a depth of understanding that makes our American character live and thrive.