Two Characters Times Two

Rogue's 'The Four of Us' plays with the lives of two real-life literary figures

I'm still pondering an unanswered question after watching The Four of Us, the intimate and engrossing play now onstage at the Rogue Theatre.

There are actually plenty of open questions kicking around in this play, but the one I found myself puzzling over as I left the theater involves the title: Who are "the four of us" in The Four of Us? It is, after all, just a two-person play—two actors, two characters.

Perhaps simple addition provides the answer: Take two talented young actors, and add in one gifted director, plus one rising playwright, and you get four. The playwright has made an elegant creation, and the collaboration of these four adds up to a singular evening of theater.

Matt Bowdren and John Shartzer play Benjamin and David, two friends whose relationship spans the transition from teen years to adulthood. The two actors not only perform with great nuance and integrity; they give off an air of boundless exuberance, as if the whole production were something they spontaneously put together in their garage.

In fact, each performance is preceded by an improvisational musical collaboration by the two, in character as the rock band of Benjamin and David's teenage ambitions. Bowdren and Shartzer playfully banter as they build absurdist pop music—an exercise in male bonding and quick thinking.

(On the night I attended, the song evolved into a gleefully kitschy power ballad about one Mrs. Price, a chaperone at a school prom who secretly lusts after a 15-year-old.)

Director Cynthia Meier manages the play's boyish cast with what feels like a light touch. The action onstage seems so effortless that one doesn't think of it being directed, yet every element blends perfectly together. That's the mark of great direction.

Designer Joseph McGrath has arranged the Rogue's flexible seating in the round, with the audience on all four sides of the action, and little stage decoration beyond two chairs and a table. From this essentially blank canvas, Meier creates an unending flow of movement with her actors, keeping the audience consistently engaged while avoiding the "I'm watching the back of your head" frustration that's so common with a play staged in the round.

The script, by Itamar Moses, is delightfully sweet, but offers plenty to chew on. Born in 1977, Moses is still a relatively young writer, but his work often focuses on colliding moments of history, spun out in highly theatrical ways.

That holds true for The Four of Us, but here, the history is personal. In fact, another grouping of four might be the two characters, plus playwright Moses and his real-life close friend, acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer.

Foer is best known for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. Developed when he was an undergraduate at Princeton, the book earned him an extremely lucrative publishing contract, a number of awards and a cascade of glowing reviews. The New York Times, for one, called it "fearless, acrobatic (and) ultimately haunting."

Paralleling the actual lives of Moses and Foer, the play makes David a playwright and Benjamin a novelist. Like Foer, the 25-year-old Benjamin has written a novel that's won him a publishing contract and a film option—deals worth $2 million. David greets this news with barely concealed envy and a perfectly executed spit take.

Benjamin's success is especially galling, because he doesn't seem to care about it. Always slightly aloof, he complains that the reality of the publishing industry is depressing. He can't recall the names of any of the celebrities he's meeting.

Success for any budding playwright, however, rarely reaches the heights Benjamin is achieving. Later in the play, David has a commercial success of his own—but what he gets is a production for his play at a theater in Indiana, and a prize of $500. Even this minor triumph sours when the play is poorly received. David bitterly turns on his critics, his director and even his audience.

David resembles a young Woody Allen in both charm and neuroses, but it gradually becomes clear that the problem here is more than simple jealousy of his friend's success. As the play caroms back and forth through time, we see that Benjamin's detachment has frequently (and not always unintentionally) undermined David's satisfaction in his own accomplishments.

It's impossible to watch The Four of Us without wondering how the play affected the relationship of the two real-life writers.

After the play premiered in 2008, Foer told Vanity Fair that "Itamar is one of my best friends, and ... his play is hilarious and great. I hope it's bigger than The Lion King." Yet the play feels written close to the nerve, probing the feelings that can fester beneath a friendship.

At the emotional climax, David and Benjamin are in a theater lobby during the performance of a play that David has written about their friendship—turning the very play we've been watching into a play-within-a-play. Suddenly, long-harbored resentments come to the surface, and new understanding is reached. Even this moment, though, is ultimately fiction: It's a dramatized version of a real-life conflict over a fictionalized history that's the subject of the dramatized conflict itself. (Try working that one out in your head.)

Perhaps the simplest equation in The Four of Us is two characters times two: Each of them (and us) has a real self, as well as a double that appears in the memories, perception and imaginations of others. By exploring that fictionalized self, David is able to come to terms with his real relationship—just as Moses does by writing this play.

No matter the equation, it adds up to a great night of theater.

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