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Two guys make `Four'

February 16, 2007|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Two guys talking. That's about all there is to "The Four of Us," yet from this seemingly static construct, playwright Itamar Moses coaxes a surprising amount of variety while guiding theatergoers toward a deeper understanding of what might be churning just beneath the conversation's surface.

Here as in "Bach at Leipzig," the play that is getting the 29-year-old Berkeley native noticed from coast to coast, Moses toys with narrative structure. For "Leipzig," which Southlanders saw in the fall at South Coast Repertory, he shaped a comic tale of rival 18th century European composers into a rather elaborate fugue. In "The Four of Us," being given its world premiere at the Old Globe, he does the opposite: sticking to a simple format yet revealing so much within it. His story goes where you expect it to and where you don't, along the way pondering the dilemmas of an artistic life and the ever-shifting nature of even the closest friendships.

The tale begins in a present-day restaurant, where Benjamin (Gideon Banner) and David (Sean Dugan), barely into their mid-20s, are catching up with each other. Benjamin has sold his first novel, which, we gather, is about to make a big splash. David, a playwright, is trying, unsuccessfully, to contain his jealousy.

Little gestures loom large. Benjamin seems modest and self-deprecating, while being graciously upbeat about his friend's prospects. Yet he shows a propensity for airy distraction and self-centeredness, as when he's unable to recall details about David's writing. David, meanwhile, can't keep the edge out of his voice, and whole chapters of subtext are coded into the methodical folding of a napkin and refusal to make eye contact as he takes a veiled swipe at Benjamin.

The napkin bit indicates just how thoroughly director Pam MacKinnon, who staged the off-Broadway production of "Bach," and her actors understand Moses' play and enjoy engaging the audience in its subtle intricacies.

As the action unfolds in nine scenes across 100 intermission-less minutes, time and place shift forward and backward -- in one instance, managing to go both directions at once. Each scene involves just the two men, talking. With each shift, the characters' personalities vary slightly, reflecting their state of emotional development at that point in life.

So each scene is a sort of game: Theatergoers must piece together clues to determine at what point in the story they've been deposited. Moses keeps pulling out the rug, quickly replacing it, then proceeding directly on to the next head game. You can almost sense him standing at the back of the auditorium, chortling.

Among the head games is a sense of duality. Benjamin and David are two sides of the same coin, so much so that at times you almost sense that "The Four of Us" is, in fact, a one-character play -- i.e., one person engaged in an interior dialogue in which he is considering two sides of every issue.

And yet it's a four-character play, because we sense Benjamin's and David's shadow selves watching each scene, trying, like the audience, to glean clues. (The effect, woven into the simple, fluid in-the-round staging in the Old Globe's Cassius Carter Centre Stage, is achieved though a nifty little trick I'm trying hard not to spoil.)

For all its inventiveness, the story keeps threatening to head toward an all-too-predictable conclusion, and when it does indeed go there, it's both a letdown and a surprise, because there too, Moses keeps delivering the unexpected.


`The Four of Us'

Where: Old Globe, Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 11

Price: $39 to $58

Contact: (619) 234-5623,

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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