Editors' pick

The Four of Us

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Editorial Review

Review: Mostly on the money - 'The Four of Us' by Itamar Moses at Theater J

By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010

It seems that money wrecks a beautiful friendship in "The Four of Us," the clever play about young literary pals now at Theater J. A struggling playwright finds the sudden success of his novelist chum hard to swallow; the news of an out-of-the-blue $2 million publishing advance plainly drives an awkward wedge between them.

Do you need to know that this story seems to be a little bit true? The publicity surrounding "The Four of Us," which has already been produced in New York and San Diego, reveals that playwright Itamar Moses had an obvious model for this funny, probing drama: his own relationship with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose debut novel, "Everything Is Illuminated," was quickly adapted for Hollywood by actor Liev Schreiber.

That's pretty much what happens to Benjamin, the slightly frosty novelist whose windfall leaves his playwright buddy David at a loss for words. The two-character drama tosses a bit of showbiz glitter at the audience as the lads ease into the sticky yet seductive realm of movie-style narcissism and what it inevitably does to the fine writing of stage and page. And Moses certainly isn't reluctant to air sour grapes about the writing life, taking well-informed aim at audience talk-backs and critics (the reviews of his play in Indiana leave David feeling pretty cranky).

But Moses steers his tale in another direction, even though Benjamin -- weirdly aloof regarding the success monster that has just gobbled him up -- tries to bring David on board to write the film treatment of his book. In fact, the play drifts backward to their student days abroad, then freely jumps around in time as Moses ponders the unsettled edges of this friendship. Eventually the carefully structured play reveals that it's been about writing (and its discontents) all along.

Daniel De Raey directs the show with a sure feel for the rapport and prickliness between the longtime friends, so it's easy to watch Karl Miller (David) and Dan Crane (Benjamin) converse for uncommonly long stretches of time. The dialogue is pretty bright, and De Raey has enough confidence in it that he doesn't force stage business; he trusts that it will be interesting enough for his actors to sit and gab.

For the most part, it is. Miller, who was so fluid and spontaneous in the fall repertory of "Angels in America" at Forum Theatre, sweeps you inside David's tunnel of insecurities. His deadpan delivery of punch lines displays a kind of bashful flair; it's a neat way to illuminate the innate tension driving this curious, perpetually outsider character.

Crane is an effective foil, not quite smug but certainly reserved and confident, even before Benjamin hits the literary lottery. Where Miller's David listens hungrily, Crane's Benjamin typically listens out of what looks like a sense of obligation -- because he has to. It's on such subtle imbalances as this -- and even in the self-images revealed by the minor distinctions in costume designer Ivania Stack's shrewdly chosen casual wear for each character -- that close relationships can be unraveled.

Though you quickly grow to trust Moses's sense of purpose, the dialogue does occasionally seem to stalk its quarry slowly. Where the production really meanders, though, is between scenes, as the artfully gridded panels of Tony Cisek's set slowly swing into new configurations. Concentrated as it is at less than two hours (no intermission), it's not a play that wants air leaking out of the balloon.

By Itamar Moses. Directed by Daniel De Raey. Lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design, Matt Otto. About 1 hour 50 minutes.