Reviewed by Ryan Max
Benny, a new play written by Suzanne Bachner, is a familiar story, told in fragments: a child decides to search for her biological parents against the protests of her loving adopted parents. But the similarities to any tear-jerking identity quests end there, as we get a far more nuanced and intimate portrait of Anna (a.k.a. Benny, what she was called as a baby in foster care). Her first meeting with her biological mother—the point at which Oprah would break out the Kleenexes—falls comically flat. From there, it is Anna’s often unsuccessful relationships with the men in her life (father, therapist, lover[s]) that really make the glimpses we see swirl into a compelling picture.
Benny’s structural conceit is nothing new. Chopped up narratives have been in vogue ever since Memento tore through town, and, since then, lots of lesser writers have used it to liven up otherwise dull stories. So it is a great relief that Benny takes a typically melodramatic storyline, adds truly funny, intimate, and disturbing moments, and then chops it up. It’s a recipe that works well, for the most part.
Dispensing with a smooth, linear narrative forces Benny to live and die on the strength of its component pieces. This sometimes hurts the play: momentum is lost between scenes that have no direct narrative link, so strong moments are swiftly extinguished. Additionally, each scene is forced to operate like a two-man one-act, leaning heavily on a conflict confined to a single moment. And yet, these isolated scenes often work in Benny’s favor. The scenes that trace the arc of her relationship with Shane, her husband, are almost painfully intimate. From their first stages of romance (Anna kissing the dimples in Shane’s back), to their wrenching separation, each glimpse into their relationship is both illuminating and deeply affecting.
Creative staging and direction make other scenes just as impacting. For example, one scene with Max (the infinitely hateable blowjob enthusiast / family friend who starts an inappropriate relationship with Anna when she is a 12-year-old girl and he is a much older lawyer) has Anna speaking to both Max and her father but with each man occupying a parallel plane within the play. That is, both are on stage, but while she speaks to one, the other is placed in a sort of suspended animation. This yields some vital theater: at one point, the condescending creep Max holds her hand in one time while she is talking to her father in another, but the moments exist simultaneously onstage. Her father, despite his flaws, cares deeply about Anna, and it’s very disturbing to watch Max caress her hair while she spills her guts to her dad.
Any bildungsroman has to choose which events from the protagonist’s life are worth portraying. Here, the impact of such choices is magnified by Benny’s structure. Because the story pops in and out of Anna’s life, we only see the points of high drama and miss the smaller moments in between. At one extreme, they fall in love; at another, he comes home drunk and hits her: there’s little to flesh out the relationship. This often works in Benny’s favor. The play suggests arcs that allow the audience to fill in the blanks, and is never so vague to be meaningless. But occasionally it leaves the audience cold, for the same reason that it’s easier to watch strangers divorce than to see your own parents do the same.
Given our limited glimpses into Anna’s life, it’s a shame that many scenes fail to enrich her story. Repeat viewings of Anna struggling through meetings with her biological mother, for instance, flatten things out. Thankfully, Benny manages to escape the dull fate of so much daytime talk-show fodder, thanks to the talent of its creators and cast. That brings the tally to something like, Good Stories: 1; Oprah: A zillion. Keep fighting the good fight, Ms. Bachner.
Benny (90 Minutes; no intermission)
June Havoc Theatre (312 W. 36th St. 1st Floor)
TICKETS [www.ovationtix.com]: $15 Students and Seniors, $18 General Admission
PERFORMANCES: Saturday 8/01 @ 3pm