Washington Post article

from The Washington Post, February 25, 2003


Benchley Does Benchley

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post

“Streets full of water. Please advise,” Robert Benchley cabled a friend while on his first trip to Venice.

Character actor Nat Benchley, grandson of the legendary humorist, writer, comic actor and Algonquin Round Table wit, polishes off that line and other martini-dry drolleries in his solo show “Benchley Despite Himself,” running through Saturday at Theater on the Run in Arlington.

Nat Benchley never knew his grandfather, who died in 1945. He conceived the show in 1989 partly because of “a real distaste for many of the popular comedians of the day,” who, unlike Robert Benchley, did not represent comedy with class.

In early versions of the show, Nat Benchley didn’t allow his own persona to creep in. “For a long time, I wanted to hide behind Robert and just use his words,” he said. But the words revealed little about the man, whose drinking and philandering hinted at some unhappiness. “What screwed me up is he never told the truth about himself,” said the actor.

Director Nick Olcott told Benchley he didn’t seem to be having any fun with the material. “He and others convinced me I had to go onstage as myself and comment about Robert and be him,” said Nat. He created a script that wove his own observations among the Benchley witticisms.

“My theory about him is that he knew, inside himself, all these things he thought he should be doing,” Nat Benchley said. His grandfather, he believes, thought he should have been writing literature instead of books like “My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew” and monologues such as “The Sex Life of the Polyp.”

But, said the actor, “my grandfather helped this country and a lot of people abroad get through the Depression and the Second World War. And he would never give himself even that much credit.”