Washington Post ,
February 18, 2003
'Benchley': Seeing a Famous
Special to The Washington Post
get much more out of the theater if you sit facing the stage.
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
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.
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
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
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.