Loneliest Number: The Four of Us

Dan Crane and Karl Miller

We’re supposed to forgive our enemies, drink less, play fair, love but one person at a time, measure ourselves not against others. When our friends succeed, we’re expected to be happy.

That is what is supposed to happen.

Of easy choices and pain-free obedience are boring stories made. Itamar Moses 2008 two-man-play The Four of Us is never dull, and given the picayune-ity of its stakes, that’s much more than the faint compliment it sounds like.

Moses’s deliberately paced narrative dissects a friendship among two boys-to-men over a ten-year period. We meet David and Benjamin in their mid-twenties. One’s a playwright, the other a novelist who, as comes to light during an increasingly fraught after-dinner chat, has just had the nullifying prefix “aspiring” blasted off of his title in spectacular, quit-your-day-job fashion.

David is still struggling, and Benjamin’s sudden promotion to a more rarefied realm of the cultural stratosphere — and his insufferable aloofness about it, believably conjured by actor Dan Crane — is tough for him to take. He worries aloud if his pal has considered that his $2 million payday mightn’t be, “in some way, totally spiritually corrupting.” It really isn’t about the Benjamins for Benjamin, but try telling that to a guy who doesn’t have any.

As the action swings forward and back in time like a pendulum slowly coming to rest the present, we come to grasp that Benjamin’s success hasn’t spoiled him so much as it’s changed David’s perception of him. A lengthy visit to the collegiate summer the pair spent in Prague at first feels like a scene from a Judd Apatow movie (bawdy, hilarious, overlong — check, check, and check) but lets us see how David has always needed smaller, more frequent doses of worldly approbation, while Benjamin’s been okay living for long stretches alone in his brain.

If David, whose every self-loathing twitch comes fully to life in Karl Miller’s squirmy performance, is at least initially as the more appealing of the pair, well, that’s only partially because he isn’t the one spouting things like “All letters are love letters, after all.” As the peeled and discarded layers metatexual skin pile up around our ankles, so does the evidence that David is a stand in for Moses, the playwright.

When The Four of Us premiered in New York two years ago, a Vanity Fair piece alleged that Benjamin was based on Jonathan Safran Foer, the wunderkind whose 2002 debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, won its then-25-year-old author universal acclaim and a seven-figure check. It 2005, Liev Schreiber adapted and directed its less successful film version. We get a recounting of this, too, albeit using an unnamed, unseen movie star. Foer denied having feuded with Moses, who has in turn played coy about the whole thing. So voila, illumination. Or not.

Backstage drama aside, Director Daniel De Raey has chiseled this into an engrossing, economical telling, giving his two actors room to breathe. Moments that rub as overwrought turn out to have a smart reason for being so. A sentimental coda overstays its welcome, but dilutes the spell only a little.

Tony Cisek’s scenic design is spare almost to abstraction; seldom more than a table, a couple of chairs, or in the funniest scene, a horribly misappropriated teddy bear. The set seems to acknowledge this is a small story. What’s the worst that can happen? David never gets famous? Benjamin isn’t his friend any more? Still we care, and that’s a magic trick at any scale.

The Four of Us is at Theater J through Feb. 21. The play runs one hour, 50 minutes, and is performed sans intermission. Tickets are available at http://www.theaterj.org.

A version of this review appears in tomorrow’s Examiner.

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