Washington Post review

from The Washington Post , February 18, 2003

‘Benchley’: Seeing a Famous Forebear Whole

By Dolores Gregory
Special to The Washington Post

You get much more out of the theater if you sit facing the stage. 
-Robert Benchley

In a prolific and varied career as drama critic, humorist, actor and screen personality, Robert Benchley was a master wag, living literally by his wit as he made his way from the pages of the New Yorker to the back lots of Hollywood. He was friend and confidant to the likes of Dorothy Parker and George S. Kaufman, who were openly envious of his gift for the bon mot, and he enjoyed a success that seemed effortless even to him. “It took me 15 years to discover I had no talent for writing,” he wrote not long before his death in 1945. “But I couldn’t give it up because I was too famous.” The demons that drove him form the mystery at the core of “Benchley Despite Himself,” a delightful one-man memorial written and performed by Benchley’s grandson Nat. The show is enjoying its first theatrical run in a production by the American Century Theater.

It’s an engaging work that breaks with the usual conventions of one-man plays. Rather than inhabit the character of Robert Benchley the entire evening, Nat Benchley blends his own observations with re-creations of the routines and sketches that made his grandfather famous. The effect is at once seductive and distancing, perhaps a bit like Robert Benchley, whose humor often obscured his unhappiness.

It’s a bit uncanny, too, that Nat Benchley bears more than a passing resemblance to his forebear. He seems literally to step into his grandfather’s skin as he performs the comic sketches that were the elder Benchley’s stock in trade: dissertations on such supposedly dry topics as the mitten industry or the sex lives of insects, delivered in a halting, deadpan style. Robert Benchley’s most famous bit is “The Treasurer’s Report,” which details the hilariously inept dealings of an unnamed charity.

As directed by Nick Olcott, however, “Benchley Despite Himself” is no mere jokefest. A thread of melancholy reflection runs through the show, which celebrates not only Robert Benchley but his times. From the 1920s through the 1940s, the younger Benchley says, a talent for wordplay was “highly prized” and a reverence for “language and its careful use” was shared by the masses. Those days are gone. The set, by Marc A. Wright, reflects that sense of loss. With its roll-top desk and Royal Standard typewriter as a centerpiece, and a collection of old studio stills and Al Hirschfeld caricatures as a backdrop, it reads a bit like an exhibit from the Smithsonian, done up to re-create the work space of a man who isn’t coming back.

“I have no desire to wallow in my grandfather’s darker hours,” Nat Benchley declares at the top of the show, but it is clear enough that the darkness had its impact on his family and, it is implied, on him. On the screen, the elder Benchley cultivated an image of cheerful, boozy nonchalance. He was the tuxedoed, mustachioed man with the martini glass in one hand and a quick quip on his lips. In life, his grandson reflects, Benchley used alcohol for its “diversionary powers.” He was “a walking series of contradictions, a finger-shaking teetotaler who drank himself to death” and a family man who spent most of his later years 3,000 miles from his wife and sons.

This combination of immense talent and troubled psyche defined the “family style of writing, partying and humor” and raised the kind of expectations that have prompted total strangers to approach Nat Benchley and declare, “You’re Robert Benchley’s grandson! Say something funny.” Add to this pressure the frustrations of his father, Nathaniel, a novelist whose efforts were always eclipsed by Robert’s fame, and the accomplishments of his brother, best-selling novelist Peter Benchley, and you have the fodder for another run-of-the-mill neurotic-scion-of-celebrity-family memoir.

But Nat Benchley avoids that trap; there’s not a hint of self-pity amid the reflection and the humor. What emerges instead is the thoughtful voice of a man longing to come to terms with his heritage by coming face to face with the grandfather he never knew. It’s a common enough impulse; what distinguishes Benchley is the collection of literary works left behind and the genetic material from which his own considerable talent springs.