Those familiar with Itamar Moses’ “Bach in Leipzig” and his intellectual debt to Tom Stoppard will not be surprised to learn that the title of his world-premiere two-hander “The Four of Us” refers not to the characters’ older and younger selves, nor to the two actors and two set shifters lurking in the shadows, but to a third option Moses cunningly keeps up his sleeve until late in the play. Although he cements his status as the most self-consciously clever among the current crop of young playwrights, his work’s dramatic interest is another matter.
Recipient of multiple professional productions of “Bach at Leipzig” and numerous awards and honors (though barely 30), Moses is in a position to know whereof he speaks in detailing the effect of material success and notoriety on creative writers, specifically two longtime friends whose careers ride on parallel tracks.
Daniel (Sean Dugan) is a burgeoning playwright bubbling with pop-culture knowledge and enthusiasm for all manner of life pursuits often picked up from Benjamin (Gideon Banner), a burgeoning novelist. Benjamin’s more ascetic; he usually abandons a pursuit by the time Daniel has embraced it. Daniel is softer and a little plump. Benjamin has a lean and hungry look and, in Moses’ view, such men are ambiguous if not dangerous.
The facts as presented to us are basically these: Meeting at 17 at musicians’ camp, the guys struggle with the demands of art and libido through a summer sojourn in Prague and separate colleges until, out of the blue, Benjamin gets his first novel published, for which he receives $2 million. A huge movie star buys the film rights. Since Daniel can so far boast only of a $500 award from a little theater in Indiana, Benjamin offers his friend the chance to write the treatment, with an eye toward the screenplay. Nothing comes of it, however, and time and circumstance drive a wedge into a decade-long friendship.
It probably goes without saying that Moses doesn’t deliver that synopsis in any linear fashion, opening at a dinner a deux to celebrate Benjamin’s windfall. Subsequent events concerning the movie are interspersed with lengthy flashbacks to Prague and a latenight college visit, until Moses finds a wrinkle in time and begins to include snippets of scenes played simultaneously but occurring months and even years apart.
Then comes that reveal, as the play turns in on itself to become a kind of Mobius strip inviting aud to re-examine everything that’s come before from a new perspective.
Few spectators will accept the invitation, not because the reveal is difficult to understand (it isn’t), but because the game won’t seem worth the candle. Separately or together, Daniel and Benjamin are just not interesting, passionate or varied enough to merit a second look. Given to long dorm-room speeches about women and creativity that are literally and figuratively sophomoric, these fellows neither clash nor bond, really; they simply co-exist.
Whatever passion is present in “The Four of Us” is reserved for what seem to be Moses’ pet peeves rather than those of his characters: specifically, clueless directors and craven critics who don’t appreciate challenging plays (can you say “Leipzig”?).
Dugan and Banner are attractive and articulate thesps, and helmer Pam MacKinnon does what she can to animate them, but this play concerned with the superficial nature of a friendship insists on dwelling on the superficial and mundane.
At the perf reviewed, Dugan interrupted one of Daniel’s endless monologues to note and swat a bug crawling up Benjamin’s beanbag chair. The moment was both amusing and electric: Both actors lost their place, paused and regrouped, and Dugan even ad-libbed one of his best lines (“You’re not really listening to me at all, are you?”).
More to the point, the delighted audience found itself spontaneously asking the very questions Moses wants his play to raise: Was that scripted? Is he the character or the actor now? Is this truly happening? What level of reality are we on?
The rest of the show contains few such supercharged moments, but when Moses starts to write them and string them together — as his mentor Stoppard so often succeeds in doing — he may well have the career for which his early notices have earmarked him.