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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Our evening in a New Jersey bar where middle-aged Frank, George, Mitch and Phil meet each Monday to drink pitchers of beer and watch a sporting event on televsion begins with Frank Sinatra singing "I've Got the World On a String." That song turns out to be a sardonic commentary on the lives of the men in David Van Vleck's Four Beers.
The men's marriages have lost their buoyancy, despite the prosperity of the Reagan era, their work as small entrepreneurs has hardly reaped the rewards associated with the American Dream (Frank owns dry-cleaning shop, George is an auto mechanic, Mitch a barber and Phil has a photography shop and at one time had several other entrepreneurial fires going). Yet, while these guys have little reason to sing along with Sinatra, neither are they the sort to introspect about their problems and disappointments or indulge in what George, the most bellicose member of the quartet disdainfully calls "crying in your beer." Well, hardly ever.
The arrival of the first two of the Monday night regulars, Frank and George, has Frank spill out his worries about his wife's possible infidelity. George says that he's not surprised since "it's in the Bible that women do evil", admits that he himself has recently "had a young woman" in a motel" jiggle bed" and advises George to keep his problem to himself. But this is a Monday unlike other Mondays. The TV set that usually limits conversation to comments on what's on screen is broken and the evening turns into a a rare and wide-ranging gabfest which naturally includes infidelity prompted by Frank's ignoring George's advice.
If you can you put aside your skepticism about the likelihood of four men not normally given to emotional bonding baring some of their deepest anguish to each other, you'll be treated to five of the best performances available around town as the four beer swillers- exchange an uninterrupted hour and forty minutes of sparkling, character revealing dialogue. While nothing much happens, a great deal is revealed and the seemingly plotless conversational meandering subtly build to a poignant denouement. The first-time playwright's sympathy for his characters, his knack for bite-sized, hilariously funny, personality building interchanges all put Four Beers several cuts above other bar-male bonding stories you may have seen.
Director Roger Danforth keeps the evening moving along without many enhancements in the way of stagecraft. But who needs more than a few chairs and tables pushed together "Last Supper" style, with five of New York's most sterling character actors on stage?
Peter Maloney's saucer-eyed round face is a veritable emotional map of the possibly cuckolded Frank. Lee Wilkof brings exactly the right mix of unruffled naivete and pain to the part of Mitch the barber. Robert LuPone is perfectly cast as the smoothest and brightest of this group of losers and Guy Boyd's George, clearly the guy headed for a big emotional blow-up, is fine even though he slightly overdoes the bluster. Michael Cullen, the only member of the cast new to me, does very well by Mel, the late arrival who as a recent widower has the most to cry in his beer about (make that rye, since that's his preferred drink) but turns out to have a sunnier future than anyone.
At $15, Four Beers offers quality theater even if you're on a beer budget. Cheers.