STOCKBRIDGE - Four people - two couples - come a long way over a period of 20 years in Michael Frayn's elegant, richly layered play, "Benefactors," which is being given a thoughtful, admirably acted and directed production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre.
Set in the mid-1960s and from the hindsight some 20 years later, "Benefactors" unfolds as the shared alternating narrative of four persons - David (David Adkins), a sincere, unplugged, idealistic architect who has been hired by the local housing authority to build a public housing project on an impossible tract of land - 15 acres "jammed between a railway line and a main road," David says - in a neighborhood pointed toward slum but not yet there; his wife, Jane (Corinna May), who doesn't share her husband's conviction in the project but dutifully supports him in the face of opposition from an across-the-street neighbor, a caustic, self-loathing former journalist named Colin (Walton Wilson); and Colin's wife, Sheila (Barbara Sims), who insinuates herself and her two children into Jane and David's home, family and, eventually, David's business.
"Benefactors" deals with the social contract between local government and the people it governs. But the play also deals with the contracts we make with one another in our relationships.
The ironic title covers the patronizing, protective posture of government and individuals who mean well - "They're going to have their houses pulled down whether they like it or not," David says of the people who will be dislodged in order to be relodged in "better" housing. "And we don't need to ask them what they want instead because we know."
But the title also refers to behavior in relationships amid constantly shifting dynamics of friendship, love, marriage, profession; how we look after one another, and ourselves, willingly or not.
David's naive assertions and ambitions continually run headlong into the frequently changing ground rules for the project which catches him between his vision on the one hand and political grandiosity and grandstanding on the other.
The stresses on David are exacerbated by Sheila's constant presence in his house and life. Being Sheila means always having to say " I'm sorry." But in her helplessness and authentic victimization at the hands of a brutally emotionally abusive husband lies a shrewdly applied facility for manipulation and maneuvering certain situations to her advantage. It's called " survival."
Frayn is after some big themes - political and personal. His prodigious skills embrace a facility for shaping ideas around his characters rather than the other way round.
His play has found eloquence in this quartet, whose prodigious individual skills, in collaboration with Eric Hill's knowing direction, work seamlessly in the service of Frayn's play and each other. The benefits are ours.¦
LENOX - Politics of another kind are front and center in Tina Packer's inventive, if at times precious, Bare Bard presentation of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" up the road from the Unicorn at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theater.
Packer has not put "Caesar" in modern dress but a 21st century culture of self-serving celebrity politics haunts the shadows of a production that brings out the snarling, toxic, combative nature of men of power and ambition in political heat.
Nigel Gore's Caesar in particular (Gore is on leave from the production; he returns Aug. 9 and is being replaced through Aug. 2 by Dennis Krausnick) is a master of political maneuvering and survival, until, that is, his hubris leads him by the hand into the arms of assassins in the Senate of Rome. Only the women - Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and Brutus' wife, Portia (both fiercely and vibrantly portrayed by Kristin Wold) - carry the voices of truth and reason. For their efforts, they become collateral damage in the war between Brutus (an inconsistent Eric Tucker) and Jason Asprey's fiery Cassius on the one hand and Marc Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus on the other for control of Rome in the wake of Caesar's death.
The show loses much of its punch in the second half. But, to its credit, even when it falters, the evening is sustained by, in addition to Asprey, Gore, and Wold, James Udom's sly Marc Antony, whose oration at Caesar's funeral is a masterly lesson in political gamesmanship.
BENEFACTORS by Michael Frayn. Directed by Eric Hill. Through July 26. Eves.: 8 Tue., Thu.-Sat.; 7 Wed. Mat.: 2 Sat. Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge. Tickets: $48. (413) 997-4444; BerkshireTheatreGroup.org. 2 hours 25 minutes
WITH: Corinna May, David Adkins, Barbara Sims, Walton Wilson
JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer. In repertory through Aug. 30. Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox. Tickets: $10- $60. (413) 637-3353; shakespeare. org. 2 hours 13 minutes
WITH: Jason Asprey, Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, Nigel Gore (returns Aug. 9), Mat Leonard, Eric Tucker, James Udom, Kristin Wold; Dennis Krausnick (through Aug. 2)