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Theater Review (LA): The Four of Us by Itamar Moses at the Elephant Theatre Lab

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Itamar Moses seems to be the playwright of the hour. This fall he has five shows on the boards. His most successful play so far, Bach at Leipzig, about a group of scheming organists all competing for the newly vacant post of organmeister in Leipzig, just closed the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival. His Back Back Back, in which he examines steroid use in professional athletics, opens at the Old Globe September 26th. Yellowjackets, which deals with the issues that face high school students as regards to race, class, and progressive politics, has just opened at Berkeley Rep. His newest, Celebrity Row about terrorism, is set to open in Chicago. Los Angeles is being treated to a fine production of The Four of Us at the Elephant Theatre Lab as a joint project of Firefly Theatre and VS.Theatre Company.

The Four of Us is basically the story of two friends who meet at music camp but go on to be writers. Ryan Johnston plays Ben, the more caustic, private, and serious of the two. He goes on to write a novel that nets him two million dollars on his first go-round. His best friend is David, Steven Klein, who is thoughtful, outgoing, and leads a more balanced social life. They meet over Indian food to celebrate Ben’s success. Trouble is David is a young playwright who hasn’t had any success yet and is torn between being thrilled and happy for his friend’s success, and eaten up with jealousy to the point that he wonders aloud whether all that money might corrupt the author.

The play goes well beyond competition, a theme that seems to be Moses’ obsession. This obsession carries over into discussion of the demands of writing a novel versus those of writing a play. When David finally scores on Broadway he catches Ben hurriedly exiting the play before the final scene. Ben wonders how he could write a play about their relationship while David wonders why Ben doesn’t write about it.

Writing novels is basically a solitary endeavor while playwriting is a collaborative art. Moses has said he loves the communal nature of playwriting because it challenges what he knows about writing and form, how to best tell a story, and how to learn from others. In the most powerful scene in the play, David, as a character based on Ben, confronts an audience with hostility and arrogance and tells them to leave the theatre. Moses is always confronting and dishing himself and his own plays, usually internally in the plays themselves.

Sometimes in The Four of Us you don’t know if what you are watching is fact or fiction. Maybe the title refers to the characters' private versus professional selves. But then again it could be an obscure reference to a successful rock band in Ireland. Some critics have said they find this navel -watching annoying, that it is too clever, while others love the puzzle of it all.

Overall I felt that Klein could have been less nice in the first scene in the restaurant. I would like to have seen more turmoil on the surface. But Klein was always real and convincing and did a bang up job in the scene where he tells the audience to piss off.

Johnston on the other hand could have been a little friendlier, less judgmental, and less nasty in the scenes where he talks to David about his sex life. These observations, of course, are personal and both these actors do a terrific job of keeping the 90 minutes crackling.

The direction by Michelle Tattenbaum is taut and fast paced. More importantly she keeps the proceedings real. Mark Guirguis is to be praised for his set design which was only a few pieces of furniture that are transformed into beds, a restaurant, chairs, coffee tables etc. Go see this one, which is being performed in rep with Pugalist Specialist by Adriano Shaplin at until October 19th.

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