For three friends, the train tracks in Elizabeth, New Jersey hold a lot of significance. It's not just the prospect of seeing the fabled 4 am 'lizbeth - a train accidentally derailed decades earlier - that draws them there, but over the course of their lives, they're able to use the time to learn more about themselves and each other.
This sense of discovery drives Jonathan Calindas's new play, appropriately titled The 4 am 'lizbeth, and now appearing at Raw Space. Following Eddie (Anthony Go), Jay (Marlon Correa), and Jerry (Rob Moretti) through eight years of their friendship allows Calindas the opportunity to examine not only the meaning of self, but what defines home, and what growing up and moving on really mean.
Calindas shows us the development of the friendship the three men share by dividing the play into three acts, the first set in 1995, the second in 1991, and the third in 1999. Each of the men is at a crossroads in the first act, facing choices that could well define the rest of his life. The second act shows the basis for the decisions and the conflicts, and the third act shows the choices' results and the final moments the men share before their lives are changed forever.
There is a fair amount of insight in Calindas's writing when The 4 am 'lizbeth is viewed as a whole. The arc of the characters across the play's acts finds a fair amount of depth and color, but events and plot points are not always organized most effectively, especially in the first act, relatively bland and filled with mawkish dialogue and perhaps overly familiar plotting. With Jerry recovering from his father's death, Jay's learning that he's soon to be a father himself, and Eddie's struggle with a terminal disease, there's almost too much non-specific pain to go around, and the actors seem to have visible trouble making the connections with the story and with each other.
But a wondrous thing happens in the second act - Go, Correa, and Moretti discover themselves and give great performances as the high school versions of their characters, articulating their problems and their hopes for the future. If they occasionally lapse into revelations it seems they, as friends, should already know, the three become vital and interesting, full of pain and torment, yes, but also the humor and life that even out all human nature. Their struggles seem better defined than in the first act, so the jokes are funnier and the emotional moments hit harder. They aren't just talking about being friends - now they actually are.
With these lines drawn, the third act feels right at home, though its easier measured in minutes than feelings. Though the third act does wrap the most important of the show's plot threads, it is almost too short in length, especially after the rapid character development and elucidation over the course of the second act. But, while the third act doesn't wholly satisfy, it is a touching and real portrait of the men preparing to truly enter the adult world for the first time.
Director Mario Corrales has provided a given the show a lean, simple production that generally works, though the apparent necessity in seeing Rachael Barba's railroad set from three different angles slows down the pace dramatically between the acts. The actors are basically fine, but their difficulty in bridging the gap between the first and the second acts damages the play, though it is much to their credit that they are able to resolve the problems later on.
As it stands, The 4 am 'lizbeth is a thoughtful study of its three characters and the process of moving from adolescence to adulthood. But with slightly sharpened writing and a more finely honed production, it has the capacity of being a modern Stand by Me. Calindas's program notes suggest has been a play long in development, and should he choose to develop it further, before long The 4am 'lizbeth could prove to be something truly special.