Spotlight: That's Mister Benchley to You, Mrs. Parker

Edwin Strout's one-act play (an expanded version of a show that debuted at the 2003 Fringe Festival) traces the decades-long friendship between poet, critic, and noted wit Dorothy Parker and fellow humorist and critic Robert Benchley, who would go on to become a successful stage and film comic (success countered by self-loathing). Steve Kath and director Matt Sciple's set design is appropriately decadent, with the audience seated in plush chairs and at candlelit tables while Strout (Benchley) and Carolyn Pool (Parker) maneuver a dozen short scenes that span from 1919 to 1945. In the early going, things are as glib and light as one might fear, with Strout and Pool playing verbal badminton while the script ticks off the main historical points (the Algonquin Hotel, The New Yorker, etc.) But Pool and Strout lay hints in the early going that this production is going to be more than a curio for those obsessed with a particularly glamorized slice of American history. At first Benchley is obviously smitten with Parker, though he's married (not happily, but a vow's a vow) and there's a sense that there will be time enough to spare. As the work goes on, Benchley joins Parker in her boozing, going her one better by adding pills to the mix. Pretty soon the crackling sophistication of the Algonquin has given way to Hollywood (which, as we know by now, is an elephant's graveyard for intellectuals), and things get more interesting. Pool, with no change of wardrobe or makeup, takes most of the light music out of her performance and replaces it with tones of fatigue, regret, and increasing desperation. Strout transforms Benchley from semi-introverted crafter of bon mots to embittered success to, finally, shambling wreck. By the end, with recriminations piled to the ceiling, the years littered with wreckage, and shards of faded hope beyond repair, we have seen a moving study of two people who liked each other very much, themselves not so much.