The fragility of human relationships examined in `Benefactors'. Benefactors Play by Michael Frayn. Starring Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Mary Beth Hurt, Simon Jones. Directed by Michael Blakemore.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As an example of polished craftsmanship, ``Benefactors'' is a worthy successor to Michael Frayn's vastly different ``Noises Off'' of two seasons ago. As a study of ill-requited kindness and severed friendships, the rueful new British comedy at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is likely to stir mixed responses. Having recently treated us to the jolliest of farces, Mr. Frayn now presents an almost documentary-style report on disintegrating inter-family relationships against a background of contemporary B ritish urbanism. In its writing, direction, and acting, ``Benefactors'' is a tour de force that proves simultaneously compelling and alienating. The objects of Mr. Frayn's concern are two neighboring couples. David and Jane Kitzinger (Sam Waterston and Glenn Close) are the bounteous givers in the relationship. Colin and Sheila Molyneux (Simon Jones and Mary Beth Hurt) are the parasitical takers. Flaky Jane gets a firmer grip on practical matters when David hires her as his part-time secretary; she also falls in love with him. Cynical and cruelly ironic Colin, however, remains contemptuous of his benefactors. An ex-journalist, he even mounts a pr otest movement against the municipal slum-clearance project for which David is the architect.

Colin's campaign is inadvertently aided by Sheila and secretly funded by the housing rehabilitation trust for which anthropologist Jane has begun working. Due to these and other causes, the high-rise housing scheme never gets off the ground. Ultimately, Jane arranges a magazine job for Colin and even maneuvers some commissions for the betrayed but philosophical David. In the course of all this, Colin leaves Sheila. The Kitzinger marriage survives. The unequal friendship doesn't.

``Benefactors'' is a conversation piece in flashbacks. Amid the profusion of good intentions gone sour and bad intentions gone haywire, Mr. Frayn contemplates with humor and sadness the fragility of human friendships. Cleverly contrived though they are, however, the characters seem as often motivated by the author's manipulative designs as by the free play of natural human forces.

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In the end, ``Benefactors'' leaves one feeling ambivalent and emotionally unsatisfied. No doubt the play, with its topical allusions, impacts more deeply on a British than an American audience. Local playgoers may find it an example of ingenious playwrighting and brilliant acting without very much heart.

Under the firm directorial guidance of Michael Blakemore, the American-English cast moves with impressive assurance through the minefield of motives -- pure, mistaken, and malign. In a performance of so much excellence, it remains for Mr. Waterston to maintain the decency and stoicism that preserve David through his long ordeal. The totality of the effect depends equally on Miss Close's efficient, self-composed Jane, Miss Hurt's lachrymose Sheila, and Mr. Jones's mean-spirited Colin.

Michael Annals's semirealistic setting and Martin Aronstein's atmospheric lighting accelerate the fluidly changing scenes. John Dunn designed the costumes. Jerry's Girls ``A Broadway Entertainment,'' with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Starring Dorothy Loudon, Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams. Staged by Larry Alford. Choreography by Wayne Cilento.

Except that it lacks a book, ``Jerry's Girls'' revels in the familiar features of a traditional, big-time Broadway musical: fetching tunes performed with style, stars in the spotlight, extravagant designs, and a general air of pizazz. Jerry Herman composed the words and music for the latest festivities. Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Dorothy Loudon head the cast of 11 lustrous ladies. The results at the St. James Theatre add up to a gala occasion.

If ``Jerry's Girls'' were simply a Herman hit parade, the occasion would of itself be worth beating the drum for. But due to the way in which Mr. Herman, director Larry Alford, and choreographer Wayne Cilento have assembled the contents, the show emerges as a combined retrospective and flashy cabaret in the Broadway manner. It serves as a showmanly celebration of the composer's more than 30 years as a major contributor to the American popular musical theater.

While the three stars do everything customarily demanded of musical-comedy performers -- they sing, dance, and clown -- each is also a specialist. The stunning Miss Uggams can make the rafters ring and then accentuate a contrasting phrase with a silken pianissimo. Miss Rivera, whose body language and high kicks are expressions of her agile wit, proves anew that she is one of the great show dancers of her time. The irrepressible Miss Loudon's projections of comic horror are almost cosmic, but she can als o respond to the delicate tenderness of ``Song in the Sand.''

``Jerry's Girls'' dips into the Herman album for 36 songs from 10 New York shows and the movie of ``Hello, Dolly!'' Dolly, Mame, and Mabel (from ``Mack and Mabel'') are the most favored girls of the celebration. Among other Herman musicals, ``Milk and Honey,'' ``A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine'' (to which he contributed), and his current hit, ``La Cage aux folles,'' are drawn upon.

The fashioners of the entertainment have taken their own approach to even the most familiar material. The results can be both surprising and comic. Except for an occasional misfire and a temporary slowdown in Act 2, the revue moves forward apace.

A fine pit band under the baton of Janet Glazener responds to the lively orchestrations by Christopher Bankey, Joseph Gianono, and Jim Tyler. Donald Pippin was the musical supervisor.

Handsome is as handsome does in a Broadway extravaganza, and handsome indeed is the production designed by Hal Tin'e (scenery for a songfest), Florence Klotz (gorgeous costumes), and Tharon Musser (spotlights galore). They have provided a glamorous setting for Jerry's girls and Jerry's pearls. The Broadway musical is strutting its stuff with pride and panache at the St. James.

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