from The Inquirer and Mirror
, Nantucket, Mass., August 1997
Nat Benchley hits the
mark in his portrayal of grandfather
I&M Staff Writer
the opening section of his one-man performance entitled
"Benchley Despite Himself," Nat Benchley admits
his grandfather, Robert Benchley, used alcohol to avoid
anything resembling self-analysis.
the performance was a skillful attempt to put Robert Benchley's
personality and career in perspective, and analyze the roots
of his intelligent and lively sense of humor.
Benchley began the play as himself, gradually slipping into
the role of his grandfather, even combing cream into his
hair and slicking it back in true (Robert) Benchley style.
He also entertained the audience with a rapid series of
jokes and parodies of his grandfather's mock lectures.
central prop was a photograph of a smiling Robert Benchley,
placed atop a stack of four books on the desk the actor
sat behind. Others included an armchair, a blackboard for
the lectures, and a typewriter.
actor began his performance talking about his own difficulty
in wrestling with his grandfather, whom he called a "complex
forebear." He also expressed frustration with the praises
others continually gave his grandfather and their sentimental
memories of him.
Benchley's determination to find out the dirt about his
complex forebear doesn't result in a sensational or reductive
portrayal. Instead, he manages to capture the elusive qualities
of Benchley, and still provide the audience with spare,
yet important, details about the forces underlying his grandfather's
career as a humorist.
example, he repeats a comment by James Thurber, who said
that Benchley's "wheel of invention" was turned
by his melancholy. At this moment in the play, the smiling
portrait of Robert serves an ironic function.
the performance, Nat Benchley refuses to slip into sentimentality,
while still conveying his deep admiration for his grandfather,
refusing to let the complexity of his personality hide behind
the guise of humor.
the end, he says that he wanted to let his grandfather know
that he had done much more than his demons would admit.
Robert Benchley constantly beat himself up for not producing
enough work or what he considered "serious" work,
while producing a prolific body of screenwriting, magazine
columns, theatre reviews, and short stories.
the close of the play, the actor admits that he hasn't yet
found a way to pay adequate tribute to Robert Benchley or
to give him peace about his career. However, he doesn't
end the performance on a grave note. He ends by repeating
lines from Benchley's advice on why a boy needs a dog: to
teach him fidelity, perseverance, and to turn three times
around before lying down.
true Benchley style, he ends the play on a note of humor.