Friendships come and go, but publishing rights are forever. Or is it the other way round? Director Daniel De Raey and his two-man cast foster a wealth of good comic realism in this new study of camaraderie and competition by the emerging writer Itamar Moses. At times the script meanders, leaving the old theater adage “show, don’t tell” buried under too much dialogue. At its core, though, the play is an earnest inspection of how sudden glory for one best friend can rock the boat of a brotherhood long thought tethered to firm ground.
Things had been going so well for the shambling oddball David (Karl Miller). He’d begun to hit a note of professional success, at least in playwright’s terms: he takes reluctant pride in his recent work, and a small theater company in the Midwest is putting up one of his plays. But his best friend Benjamin (Dan Crane) is a little bit faster, a little more prolific, and – just maybe – a little bit better. His debut novel is being published internationally in a deal worth (cough, cough) two million dollars. In addition, an unnamed Hollywood actor (virtually all modern cultural references are bleached from the text) has optioned the story for film. The stars may be starting to align for David, but Ben’s line is longer, and the stars are more famous.
To make matters worse, Benjamin knows nothing of pop culture. From scene to scene, David is forced to explain the implications of having that actor read your book, or that singer saying she liked it. As Ben, Crane is kind but always impassive, riding out his fame like Odysseus on the choppy seas, and his stoic calm is enough to drive David crazy. Karl Miller is wonderfully skilled at making dialogue sound like ad lib, and his touching, graceful treatment of an off-kilter character – sometimes brash and chummy, sometimes cripplingly nervous – is the primary reason to see the show.
Artists tend to fall into two schools: those who bring raging passion and a bucket of ideas, and those who bring methodical focus and a single pen. While David paints Pollock as he speaks, Dan is more of a verbal Seurat, and his precision is seductive. Dan Crane does a smart job as Ben, and if he seems a bit stiffer than Miller, it’s because Benjamin is precisely that friend we all know and remember – mysterious, unflappable, and quite possibly unknowable. As the object of a fellow writer’s fixation he is one with his success, the romanticized figure who can make great art happen because… why not? “You have remarkable self possession,” David sighs. “I have a hard time doing things – believing that they’re real, or that they mean anything – if no one’s watching. You don’t have that problem.”
Ben smiles, but his answer doesn’t comfort. “You’re going to be fine,” he says. “You’re going to be just fine.”
The Four of Us is a fitful study, a stroll through some sore past chapters that, like many good memory plays, relies heavily on impressionism and romance to color the framework of a minimalist plot. It’s one of a number of strong recent works (another would be Norway’s beautiful 2006 film “Reprise”) that wonder about the importance of youth, self-respect, and competition in the life of the artist. In oscillating between the present and the recent past – David and Ben’s ages fluctuate back and forth from scene to scene, sometimes by as little as a year or a few months – Moses finds an effective means of pressing a finger to the ego at its softest points of development: what if I had finished this play just a little earlier? A little later? How terrible would this novel have been if I had never met my friend? How glorious?
The final third of the play grows exceedingly self-aware, unwrapping the strands of time enough for the characters to remove themselves completely and discuss how the author has presented their story thus far. It’s a cheeky move that’s supposed to be the icing on the cake, but for a moment of sweet honesty it’s tinged with too bitter a taste of self-preservation.
Playing a show straight through without an intermission is always welcome, but The Four of Us can stand to lose its final twenty minutes in the process. Moses might find, as a result, his story stands strong without the use of a crutch. Audiences, in turn, would be given more room to nurse a melancholy of the most healthful sort – that which reminds us of the reasons we tend to drift away from old friendships, and why it’s so valuable to try and write new chapters nonetheless.
The Four of Us
By Itamar Moses
Directed by Daniel De Raey
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
The Four of Us runs through Feb 21, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.