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The Four of Us

at MTC's Stage II

There was a time, not so very long ago in the history of legitimate theatre, when the disclosure of a homosexual attachment was absolutely forbidden. Then followed an era of shocks — but I expect that coming to terms with same-sex romance will prove to have been a straightforward affair relative to the period that we are now entering: violating the ultimate taboo, playwrights dissect the various asexual relationships between men that go under the vernacular heading of "friendship." Love may be a sweet mystery, but it's child's play by comparison.

All of which is to say that audiences for Itamar Moses's smashingly good two-man play, The Four of Us may be forgiven for bracing themselves not so much for the surprise as for the clichι of gay declarations. As it turns out, neither man is interested, "that way," in the other, but not the least of Mr Moses's stunts is planting the suggestion, at the very moment when it becomes clear that David is not going to acknowledge a longing to plant a big kiss on Benjamin's lips, that the whole play would be much simpler if he did. We've gotten used to wayward desires. If David were only to whisper, "I love you," all would be clear: his neediness; Benjamin's passive-aggressive, falsely modest disdain; and the persistence of a relationship that, without love, feeds on — what, exactly? That's what Mr Moses wants to know.

The Four of Us is a sequence of about eight scenes, three of them flashbacks. The difference between the flashbacks and the scenes set in the ongoing present is David's armor. He hasn't got any in the "earlier" scenes, and in the earliest, he doesn't even realize that he is going to need any. That this is also the play's final scene makes for an extremely poignant ending, not least because Benjamin, ahead of David as usual, has just awakened to his own vulnerability. We "re-read" the entire play as we're leaving the theatre.

On our way out, we may well ask: Are David and Benjamin friends? They certainly were close once upon a time, back at summer music camp, in the earliest and last scene, when they were both sure that they'd grow up to be rock stars (or at least legends known to discerning fans). But "now," at the start of the play, they seem to have drifted apart. Close or apart, however, they're such bad friends that we may wonder if they're friends at all. Each of them is so transfixed by the mystery of his own future that he clings to the other as the only available point of reference. But since a point of reference is just about the last thing that a budding creative type can be taken for, David and Benjamin let one another down as a matter of course. Each professes to want to "be there" for the other, but, in hard times, neither of them is. So, from time to time, each of them has to bear a load of uncertain agony without any help from the other; and the want of help actually increases the load. The air is understandably stiff with politely but barely suppressed resentment.

In Mr Moses's view, I suspect, it has to be this way. Men like David and Benjamin are less like the pack animals to which human males are so often compared than they are like majestically antlered stags meeting in a forest clearing. Competition is simply inescapable. For either man to live, he must try to surpass the other. This is not the kind of greediness for material resources that religions and philosophies try to dampen. Even the striving for fame and recognition is somewhat beside the point, which is nothing less than self-discovery.

Developing as a writer or an artist necessarily involves growing into the unknown, the uncharted, the unilluminated. Such markers as there are define failure — failure to grow — because they signify that someone else has been there first. How to be different without being abjectly and ridiculously senseless? Stricken by the autogenous challenge to make a creative mark, some men avoid any kind of intimacy, but this poses a steep and dangerously unventilated challenge. Most people fall into helplessly unequal associations that are more like partnerships than friendships. The business of the firm is to find a point of entry into the creative life, and one of the pair is always going to be better at the job than the other — more knowledgable, more self-assured, quicker to learn — and in the hothouse atmosphere of such special adolescence, superiority is the more striking for being marginal. Meanwhile, the "slow" partner tries to keep up, and resents being reminded of the effort. Whether the two men remain friends after they have landed is, so far as I can tell, a matter of the dumbest luck.

This is not the place for a synopsis of this very knowing, somewhat "meta" play, which is engagingly tricky but not difficult to follow. It's perhaps too much to say that, in another of his impressive moves, Mr Moses lets us know that almost everything that happens on stage is as seen through the eyes of only one of the characters. The playwright, in other words, has strangled his inner onmiscient observer, in order to concentrate the experience of an unavoidably asymmetric relationship, and show it as it is necessarily felt within the compass of one consciousness. As a narrative device, this is much more than a stunt. It is profoundly true to the kind of experience that the play is about. It would be impossible to reconcile what the two men go through from a single point of view.

Gideon Banner (Benjamin) and Michael Esper (David), inhabit their own characters completely, but this is no less than one would expect. What's remarkable is their inhabitance of the relationship, which is so finely tuned that Penn and Teller (to name the most recent great name in comic duos) come to mind. Indeed, I thank them for articulating the play so perfectly that everything that I have said about it was lucid and clear but not cloyingly obvious. These were actors unafraid to invite the audience to think about what was going on. They also shared a thoroughgoing showman's grasp of comic potential: even people who might not have "got" the play had a good time just watching two guys scrap. The actors enjoyed massive assists from David Zinn (super sets, and all-too-credible costumes), Russel H Champa (lighting — with a marvelous effect at the end), and Daniel Baker (sound — crucial in a world where knowing who the cool bands are is tantamount to knowing how to write).

My praise for The Four of Us must be tempered by a confession: when I was as young as David and Benjamin, I was invariably on one side or the other of such a "friendship" as theirs, and on several occasions the other party was a woman. I was a peacock and a drab, and utterly unaware of being both. I have never seen a play — or read a book, for that matter — that came halfway near Itamar Moses's play at describing an intense emotional resistance that shamed me more than any forbidden kisses. I know. (May 2008)

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