'Benefactors' Faced Rough Road before Curtain Time

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

'Benefactors' Faced Rough Road before Curtain Time


Byline: Jack Helbig

What happens when you hire a hot-shot director and just before rehearsals start, the director gets called out of town to work on a hotter project?

That's what happened earlier this year to Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writer's Theatre and the person responsible for hiring all the directors who work at the theater.

The director was Gary Griffin. The project was Michael Frayn's prize-winning tragi-comedy "Benefactors," currently in production at the Writer's Theatre, about do-gooders doing badly in mid-'70s London.

Two years ago Griffin proposed that he do a version of "Benefactors" in Writer's Theatre, in the back room of Books on Vernon in Glencoe.

Halberstam hesitated.

"When I first read it, it seemed talky," he says. But after some reflection and a re-reading of the play, he realized that Frayn, best known for his hilarious farce "Noises Off," was a much subtler writer than he seemed at first.

"All of Frayn's characters have three sides," Halberstam says. "What they want, what they say, and what they do are three very different things. All of the characters in 'Benefactors' work like this. It is very much like Chekhov, which isn't a coincidence. He was working on translations of all of Chekhov's plays at the time."

Halberstam offered Griffin space for the show in their new theater, a larger space in Glencoe. But Griffin promptly turned him down.

"He told me he had conceived of it for the bookstore space," Halberstam says.

Griffin liked the cramped feeling of that bookstore space, he says, believing that it turned up the heat in a play that already had a pressure cooker of a story.

Halberstam agreed and put the show on the current season's schedule, helped Griffin cast it, had a set designed, and hired an artistic staff to bring the show to life.

But five days before rehearsals began, Griffin had to bow out. It seems at the same time Griffin was up to his elbows in a musical adaptation of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," which was bound for Broadway. …

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