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A CurtainUp Review

Four Moves to Stage II at MTC
by Elyse Sommer

I was out of town when Jeff Cohen's Worth Street Theatre mounted the New York premiere of Christopher Shinn's Four, set in his home town and written when he was twenty-three years old. The play has now been given a second New York life under the auspices of Manhattan Theatre Club. Mr. Cohen again directing. The MTC's Stage II is small enough to retain the intimacy of the downtown production but affords Mr. Cohen a chance to give the play an airier feel than was possible in his miniscule downtown space.

Louisa Whitlock's review (below this re-review) provides a sufficiently detailed summary of what Four is about, so I'll simply add some impressions of my own. I'll begin with the performances since Mr. Shinn's play is, above all, a gift to actors. Three of the four original cast members were fortunately available to reprise the parts in which they already distinguished themselves. With Pascale Armand, now playing Abigayle this Four is truly a 4-star ensemble.

The playwright's spare dialogue blazes with the richness and individuality with which each of the foursome speaks. Abigayle (Armand) is sharp-tongued and smart, which prompts the better at basketball than academics Dexter (Armando Riesco) to declare "I talk like I'm black, you talk like you a white girl.". June (Keith Nobbs, who has the juiciest role but an unnecessarily silly name) speaks in a voice that embodies his tentativeness about his untested homosexuality. Joe's (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) booming bass baritone gives a ring of confidence to his pronouncements of wisdom that is shadowed by his own duplicitous double life. But it is the facial expressions and gestures that bring out the color and richness of Shinn's spare and authentic dialogue. Mr. Nobbs, especially, speaks volumes with his body language, scratching and hugging himself repeatedly in a vain effort to hide his tension -- and his eagerness. It is theater at its most riveting to watch this awkward boy (as well as the fidgety Abigayle) finally take the lead in this double game of sexual hide and seek.

Besides the classic references to the influences on modern American thought to which Louisa alluded in her review, the parallel relationships unfolding with an edgy sweetness on a Fourth of July evening also evokes a warm, old-fashioned Americana flavor. Not that this is an old-fashioned play. Except for the never out-of-fashion loneliness and fear of moving into unexplored territory which drives all the characters, the night of sexual fireworks, which includes an interracial, boy-meets-man on the internet date, is as up-to-date as the latest edition of Microsoft's Windows.

Jeff Cohen directs the shifts between the two couples with utmost fluidity and the sexual scenes with discreet frankness. His original design team has beautifully adapted the bare bones staging and subtle lighting to the thrust stage of this venue. The simplicity of the several raised cubes and ramp with minimal props seem ideally suited to the scenes which often play out in places as lonely and isolated as the characters. Not having heard the original incidental music, I can only say that David Van Tieghem's work enhances the overall mood immeasurably. Even the Playbill cover's four awkwardly angled and paired hangers echo the overall attunement of script, acting and staging.

Since the ensemble so beautifully captures the loneliness and fears of Abigayle, Dexter, Joe and June, Mr. Shinn hardly needed the unseen fifth character (Abigayle's mysteriously sick mother) as a metaphor for the crippling effects of giving in to fear of facing the unknown. This one overdose of symbolism, notwithstanding, Four is an enjoyable, emotionally stirring play. It may, as Louisa Whitfield put it, fall short of being a " great achievement intellectually", but it is the sort of astutely written script that brings out the best in actors. Its playwright is young, gifted and prolific enough (Shinn has written a number of other plays) to write more and ever better plays -- maybe even a great one.

Production Notes for Four produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in association with The Worth Street Theatre Company
Playwright: Christopher Shinn
Director: Jeff Cohen Cast: Pascale Armand,Keith Nobbs, Armando Riesco and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Set Design: Lauren Helpern
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer

Costume Design: Veronica Worts
Sound Design: Paul Adams
Original Music: David Van Tieghem
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II at City Center, 131 West 55th St. (6th/7th Aves) 212/ 581-1212. MTC website.
January 29, 2002; opening February 19, 2002. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, with matinees on Saturdays at 3:00 PM. Sunday Performances are at 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM - $45.
Review by Elyse Sommer based on February 17th press preview.

Our Review of the Worth Street Production by Louisa Whitfield

You may not like America, but deep down you love it. You have to, it's your country, you may not like it, but I LOVE it because it is AMERICA. Do you understand?
---Joe to June
Having already premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre and gained excellent reviews, Christopher Shinn's Four comes to Manhattan's Tribeca Playhouse. Set in the playwright's hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, the play follows four characters on one Fourth of July night in 1996.

The play opens to a deserted parking lot, where a solitary teenager is making a call at a phone booth. It is here that we meet June (Keith Nobbs). a shy sixteen year old boy who is in anguish over his repressed homosexuality. The lights fade and we next meet Abigayle (Vinessa Antoine), an attractive African American girl of roughly the same age who longs to go out and enjoy the festivities but feels obliged to stay at home with her bedridden mother. (The mother is offstage, we must imagine her). Abigayle carries on a phone conversation with the persistent Dexter (Armando Riesco), a young white kid from a rougher neighbourhood in Hartford who is pursuing her. He is not introduced onstage until much later. Finally we meet Joe (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Abigayle's father, a handsome man in his forties. He chatted with June over the internet; they rendezvous as potential lovers.

Thus begins Christopher Shinn's stark and minimalist play focusing on the isolation and desires of four average individuals from a cross-section of American life: a successful father, a studious young daughter, a frustrated white boy from a bad neighborhood ( "I grew up with black people!") and a shy and very lonely young homosexual who is unable to confront his sexuality.

What makes this play powerful is its simplicity: the set (designed by Lauren Halpern) is almost empty save for two wooden chairs that serve as both car seats as well as a sofa in the Phillips' living room. The lighting (done by Tracy Klainer) is soft, abstract, lonely. Guitarist Steve Bargonetti and Diane Gioia compose an original score that give the play its sad, surreal backdrop. Yet Four's dialogue never quite achieves what Shinn attempts.

It is a tough play. The dialogue is colloquial, meandering, as Shinn tries to evoke the natural chatter between young Americans. (Abigayle: "That was a joke. You're so easily offended, dag! No, I was just checking on my mom. Well she is. Yeah.") He emulates young urban speech very effectively, but there are times when the dialogue wanders to such a degree that it is hard to stay focused on the plot. While all the actors are extremely convincing, one feels a slight imbalance between the strong and obviously stage-savvy Whitlock and his fellow actors.

In between the casual banter of these couples is the occasional monologue in which Shinn's strength as a playwright shines through. Joe's character exemplifies this well, and Whitlock performs it beautifully. He is an unrelenting individual, one who is absolutely sure of what he believes in. "You've got to be proud of yourself, you've got to believe in yourself. You need some confidence. Or some cockiness. A little America. Hah!" (Although here we literally cringe at his duplicity as we watch him call his daughter on a cell phone while on his "date" with June, and tell her calmly that he is in Boston.)

It is this very duplicity that makes Four interesting as a commentary on modern America. Joe is eager to take June to a hotel and have sex with him ("we'll get you screaming later..."), yet is reluctant to buy him alcohol ("I'm not buying alcohol for a minor!") Similarly his bright daughter Abigayle is way ahead of Dexter's lack of education, yet she seeks it as a refuge from her disintegrating family life. The play is full of classic references to the influences on modern American thought: Mark Twain, Truman Capote, even the Bible is discussed briefly in June and Joe's motel room. These are used as a foundation from which to examine elements contained in modern American life: guilt, repression, escape, sadness, lust; and in that it is a cleverly conceived piece. Jeff Cohen directs it well, and the actors are strong and totally without hesitation. As a great achievement intellectually, however, Four falls a little short of the mark.

by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Jeff Cohen
with Vinessa Antoine, Keith Nobbs, Armando Riesco and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Set Design: Lauren Halpern
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer
Costume Design: Veronica Worts
Sound Design: Paul Adams
Original Music: Steve Bargonetti & Diana Gioia
A production of Worth Street Theatre
Tribeca Playhouse, 111 Reade Street (Church/West Broadway)
Telephone (212) 206-1515
Opening July 1, 2001, no closing specified
Mon, Thurs - Sat @8, Sun @5; $15 - 35
Reviewed by Louisa Whitfield based on 7/2/01 performance
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