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A CurtainUp Review
The Four of Us

I just hope that, uh. . .That having that much money just kind of dropped in your lap, you know. . .that much time. . .doesn't turn out to be in some way kind of totally spiritually corrupting. . ./i>— David, upon hearing about Ben's $2million dollar deal for his novel. The fear that's really lurking beneath the spoken words is that Benjamin's success will change their friendship-- and the secondary but more meaningful message in this story is the difficulty friends have in really communicating their deepest feelings openly and honestly.

Few men have the natural strength to honour a friend's success without envy.— Aeschylus
four of Us
Gideon Banner & Michael Esper
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Friendships are a lot like marriage. Even without the sexual attraction that serves as the spark to ignite a love affair, there's an undefinable chemistry in a close, one-on-one friendship. Like a marriage, a friendship can survive or collapse with the situations anticipated by the marital vows to remain true "for better and worse, for richer or poorer." Growing apart from a close friend or, worse still, having the friendship come to a bitter end, can be every bit as painful as a divorce.

No wonder friendship has been a much explored subject on the page, stage and screen, as non-fiction fiction and that strange hybrid, faction. Itamar Moses' The Four of Us, falls into that last genre. It focuses on the friendship of two ambitious young writers: Benjamin (Gideon Banner, as a stand-in for Moses' friend Jonathan Safran Feuer who was catapulted to fame and riches with his first novel Everything Is Illuminated); David (Michael Esper standing in for Moses, whose own first New York play, Bach in Leipzig, was more panned than applauded).

Though Moses' second Off-Broadway outing is much more modest than Bach in Leipzig, ( review), it's already been blessed with a far friendlier critical reception. A good omen for the young playwright's (he's 31) future career, though still unlikely to make him a multi-millionaire as Everything Is Illuminated did Feuer. The Four of Us nevertheless has some impressive assets:
. . .much savvy dialogue and some reasonably easy to follow structural gymnastics to provide the much needed fresh approach to a much more than twice-told tale

. . . two well-matched actors who can do seventeen as believably as twenty something

. . . a strikingly cool royal blue set with four doors that would usually be associated with a farce, but which are here made innovatively functional

. . .a director who keeps the non-linear story crisply ziggin and zagging from present to past and back again

But neither director Pam MacKinnon or designer David Zinn, both of whom previously demonstrated their affinity for Moses' work in Bach at Leipzig, can make The Four of Us more than a clever, lightweight entertainment. Unless you're a novelist or playwright, it offers little that will stick to the memory beyond its ninety-five minutes.

To be perfectly frank, nothing quite lives up to the first and best scene. The time jumping trip through David and Ben's ten-year friendship has its amusing and true observations about male bonding and the difficulties of maintaining a friendship without steady contact; and, most provocatively, strain of dealing with one friend's rise to the top of the success ladder while the other remains stuck on the bottom rung. The stylish staging and construct lend a spark to the drama, but it somehow dims before the last scene (which is really the first scene), and neither David and Ben are interesting enough to merit a place on anyone's memorable character list.

The scene that so promisingly launches The Four of Us findf David and Ben, lunching at an Indian restaurant fulfilling a promise that whenever Ben became a published novelist or David a produced playwright, the one with the good news would be treated by the other. It's David's treat, so he knows that Ben has just sold his first literary novel. However, since the friends have not seen all that much of each other since bonding at summer camp, visiting each other in their respective colleges and spending a summer together in Prague, David has no idea just how big a deal this is. While Ben has earned his bragging rights, he's a laid-back kind of guy and seems reluctant and more than a little uncomfortable to reveal the details of his book deal. But at David's prodding one amazing detail after another is put on the table— an international book tour, a pending paperback and a movie deal. rights and a book deal are revealed. All that remains is for Ben to reveal how big an advance his agent got for him. Ben spills the two million dollar answer to this million dollar question just as David is taking a sip of water. A perfect lead-in to a very funny spit-take!

David too has some good news to bring to that character defining and situation establishing lunch also. A play he wrote in Prague is being workshopped in Indiana, his advance a decidedly unamazing $500. Moreover, a third guest, the Green-Eyed Monster, takes a seat at the table when David expresses supposedly well meaning concern that he hopes "all this money dropped in your lap doesn't turn out to be in some way kind of totally spiritually corrupting"

The restaurant scene is followed by Ben's well-meaning attempt to have David benefit from his good fortune by getting him a chance to do the treatment for the actor who has bought the film rights to the book. David, being much more impressed by the celebrity acouterments than the more introverted and stick-to-the-writing minded Ben, screws things up and in a case of no good deed goes unpunished, the relationship between the two friends becomes more and more Green Monster driven.

The replays of the friendship at summer camp, during their college days and in Prague are intended to reveal its complexities. Though Ben and David shared the same kind of dreams (initially to be rock musicians, later to be writers) there have always been differences rife with the potential for the animosities that surfaced when Ben became a best-selling author, and again when David has a play running in an Off-Broadway theater (can you guess what that play is?) The flasback scenes include a rather lame sight gag about a polar bear sized teddy bear to raise a teasing question about the friendship being heteresexual.

I don't know if Moses and Feuer are currently friends or just how fact-based the play is, though David's crazed rant in one of the final scenes seems likely to be prompted by Moses' disappointing experience with Bach in Leipzig. As for the play's title, maybe it's called The Four of Us instead of The Two of Us because the unseen two are the David and Ben of each man's recollections.

By Itamar Moses
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Cast: Gideon Banner (Benjamin) and Michael Esper (David).
Sets and costumes by David Zinn
Lighting by Russell H. Champa
Sound by Daniel Baker
Manhattan Theater Club at City Center, Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212.
From 3/06/08; opening 3/25/08; closing 5/18/08.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Tuesday to Sunday at 7:30pm, Saturday & Sunday at 2:30pm. Beginning April 1, Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm; Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:30pm.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes without an intermission.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 3/28/08

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