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Monday, July 20, 2009

Review- Benny (MITF)

The Fab Marquee review by Karen Tortora-Lee.

Benny (written by Suzanne Bachner and directed by Trish Minskoff) may have a cast of five but don't let anyone fool you, this production belongs entirely to Morgan Lindsey Tachco who embodies the title role...although the main character is actually named Anna. Benny plays more like a one woman show; and while everyone in the cast does a superlative job there is no doubt where your focus is meant to be.

Anna's life story is presented to us in time-jumping vignettes. Imagine a life story written on scraps of paper which are then thrown into the air; simply flung to the wind. Then further imagine pivotal moments plucked at random and taped together and that's how Benny unfolds, truly there's no telling what moment you'll get next with Anna.

Morgan Lindsey Tachco & Susan Barret
photo credit: Scott Wynn

Sometimes painful, sometimes shocking, sometimes downright funny, these moments give a shadowy picture of a girl whose whole life is a fractured silhouette aching to be a comprehensive whole. The structure of this story crosses the time line from Anna's teen years to her married years and back again, depending on what particular event needs to be explained. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, however it does keep the audience on its toes constantly, there's very little by way of costuming, lighting or much else to indicate what part of Anna's life we're jumping into, so just be sure to bring your breadcrumbs so that you can leave a trail and piece it all together.

When we first meet Anna she's a nervous adult, married, and being hit on by a randy cab driver. The casual, harmless flirtation sends her into a tailspin and she dives out of the we're immediately clued into the fact that this is one nervous woman.

Next it's years earlier, Anna is with her shrink Dr. Weitzner (played by Bob Celli) and completely manic, she's romping on furniture, speaking quickly, and recounting a scene earlier that day where she threw butter knives on school grounds. She feels liberated and declares herself longer depressed. Here is where we discovered that Anna is, in fact, bipolar and under doctors care. The fact that her doctor and her father (also played by Bob Celli) are close friends and obviously discussing her sessions spreads the first of many sheer veneers of uneasiness over this play...somehow Anna never gets to keep her own privacy private.

As each subsequent scene flutters down-it's disturbing in different ways. Anna is an adopted girl who was called Benny at one point (hence the title) and after being plagued by bipolar disorder she is determined to seek out her birth mother. This, of course, disturbs her father and her mother (unseen but pivotal; she's mentioned often and becomes a catalyst later on) but it's something Anna feels she must do. Again, it's a layer of her own life that Anna is not allowed to either decide for herself without a fight, or even access without jumping through emotional hoops that this poor girl is just not able to handle.

Danny Wiseman, Morgan Lindsey Tachco & Bob Celli
photo credit: Scott Wynn

Scene after scene Morgan Linsdey Tachco shows us the range of this woman who suffers from manic depression...the dreamy, self deprecating way she obsesses over a much older friend of the family, Max (Danny Wiseman), and allows him to perpetuate a terrible ritual that leaves her in a sad little secretive world, the terrified way she reacts to things which disturb her, the complete resignation which washes over her as her birth mother (Susan Barrett) turns out to be so...not what she expected. And not what she needs. Over and over again, Anna can't catch a break.

Some things in Benny are hinted at but not made clear; there seems to be a fear of traditional intercourse that keeps Anna from being with her husband Shane (Tim Smallwood) in a normal way, but again, this is only alluded to. Similarly, while it's clear that this is a woman who felt abandoned by her mother and subsequently allowed others to use her, all while reveling in the importance she felt as the enabler (Someone needs me!) it's never clear why she stays in a holding pattern of despair rather than, say, find a better therapist or just say "thanks but no thanks" to her birth mother. Also unclear is why birth mom Marcie - who is a horror show or suburban accouterments, prone to creating holiday themed crafts, and layering herself in trinkets, aprons and flair - seems obsessed with her family but never satisfactorily explains why she gave Anna away.

There is one very pivotal scene which explains Anna's secret shame involving Max, but it goes even further, it spotlights years of family denial and shows that maybe Anna wasn't so "crazy" after all, that maybe there was a way to salvage her if people around her had reacted appropriately. Unfortunately, the scene is very ambitiously written, perhaps on film with editing devices and lighting and even CGI it would have soared but in a small theatre with nothing but tempo, voice and body language to set young Anna apart from adult Anna and several boxes to separate past from present it all got a bit confusing. Tachco rises to the challenge beautifully and sails through the scene (or rather 2 scenes played simultaneously) amazingly well, however I still felt there was just too much going on for one person to have to carry, all the time traveling was left to her and the degree to which the audience had to keep track was exhausting. Similarly, some characters weren't developed enough which at times led to confusion as to who they were in relation to everyone (such as Anna's brother who isn't explained until his second appearance), and not always having that explicitly spelled out, along with Anna's age, often led to a bit of unnecessary confusion and energy spent trying to unravel the clues which could have been spent enjoying Ms. Tachco and company's performance.

Several other unanswered questions (most notably...why did they call her Benny?) were frustrating; like leftover scraps of paper that didn't quite fit in with the rest of the page. However, over all, Benny paints a haunting portrait of a troubled girl grown into a somewhat sheepish woman who survived some terrible abuses and came out of it, if not sane then at least in one piece. I'm sure there's more of a journey for Anna. And perhaps somewhere down that road these questions can be answered. If that's so, I'd be willing to watch Benny as she hits her stride and finally comes into her own.

The Midtown International Theatre Festival presents
John Montgomery Theatre Company's
July 16-August 1, 2009
(07/16 @6:30pm; 07/17 @7pm; 7/26 & 7/29 @ 4:30pm; 08/01 @3pm)
The June Havoc Theatre

Tickets are $20.50 for adults and $17.50 for students and seniors . For schedule and Ttckets visit at, or by calling 866-811-4111. Tickets are also available in person at the box office one half hour before show time.

The June Havoc Theatre | 312 West 36th St between 8th and 9th Ave | Manhattan.

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