So it's difficult to know how to approach Itamar Moses's new play The Four of Us, which just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club, other than to say it's no Citizen Kane. (For you youngsters in this play's target demographic, it's also no Fight Club.) Despite being attractively staged (by Pam MacKinnon), Moses's novel-gazing exercise alternates between intermittently amusing and downright tedious until the penultimate scene. That's when the world shifts and head-scratching, nervous laughter, and pensive looks take over.
You don't, however, get what you need most, the thing that separates truly effective twists from garden-variety gimmicks: a deeper understanding of all that's come before. What begins as a flimsy chronicle of two writer friends unable to cope with each other's achievements also ends as such, albeit with the dubious added value of an explanation for the stilted writing and wooden acting that plague the production. (Whoops, I almost gave something away there.)
The story follows fiction writer Benjamin (Gideon Banner) and playwright David (Michael Esper) from their first meeting as 17-year-olds in music camp through college, a summer in Europe, and their early attempts at establishing their careers. One is successful early while the other continues to struggle, though of course the one who found easy fame has had an equivalently bumpy road of a different sort. Good intentions go awry, good feelings go bad, and good friends go separate ways - only to reunite when it's most important.
The pervasive shallowness of this, intertwined with a less-than-scintillating condemnation of the commercial aspects of the literary world, is not alleviated by Moses's ordering scenes to tell the entire story and then fill in all the gaps, whether or not they need it. That they invariably do not results in a 95-minute play with, at best, 45 minutes of story and an atmosphere of chronic repetitiveness: By the time Benjamin and David get around to saying all the things they earlier said they said, you've long progressed past needing to hear them.
Those scenes, set earlier in the chronology, are also hampered by the performers' arch heaviness. Banner's and Esper's jaded, detached outlooks make them moderately believable in scenes set in Benjamin and David's late 20s, but don't make them convincingly idealistic kids. Episodes from their college years, one of which includes a protracted sex demonstration with an oversized stuffed bear, are too awkward for the actors to achieve the play's goals of showing us what these talented boys lost on the road to manhood.
Or are they? That Banner and Esper never tap into their characters' darkest recesses to inform their portrayals could just be an elaborate and unwinking realization of that crucial late-show turn. As could Itamar's constipated dialogue, which frequently includes lines like, "Oh, not, don't get me wrong, not you, like, exceed me in all things, or whatever, just, mainly, because envy is kind of not your style, you have this remarkable self-possession, it's one of the things that makes you a seductive friend, you rarely seem to need anything. From outside yourself."
Unfortunately, the way this relates to the twist can't really be discussed here. Nor should the title, which offers a major clue, but is loaded with enough other safe interpretations so it doesn't give away too much. Moses has managed an astonishing act of cleverness not suggested either by his writing here, or in his frustratingly unfunny 2005 debut play, Bach at Leipzig: complete critical immunity. The story, the dialogue, and the acting are all so wrapped up in that one knot of plot that there's practically nothing that can safely be said about The Four of Us. That's only fitting, given how little the play itself says about anything.
The Four of Us