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Our Review of the Worth Street Production by Louisa Whitfield
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.
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