San Diego David and Ben, aspiring writers in their mid 20s, meet at a restaurant for a victory celebration. One just broke through. Now you'd think it'd be David. He's dressed more for success -- looks like a counselor at an upscale camp, in fact -- and does most of the talking: ornate quips and phrasings, as if auditioning each line for literary value.
Ben wears high-end grunge and tends to dismiss hype -- and conflict -- with his generation's ubiquitous "whatever." When he wrote his novel, Ben didn't care a whit about publication. He had to write it (and could have left it in the desk drawer). So guess which one not only got published but won the lottery: agape reviews, foreign translations, world tour, film rights?
Nope. It was Ben -- now known as Benjamin.
One of the ironies of The Four of Us by Itamar Moses, currently at the Cassius Carter: David's primed for success. He knows all the players and would fit right in (that he may think way too much about these things, when writing, is also implied). Ben couldn't care less. He's "pop culturally ignorant" and ill-prepared for the lecture circuit. He just did what he had to, he tries to explain, and, unless inspired, may never write again (like Margaret Edson, author of Wit, Ben wrote from need, not want). It's too bad Ben and David couldn't be a before-and-after tandem. Ben digs and grinds and produces a quality work; then David takes stage and wallows in flashbulbs and flattery. Instead, Ben's seven-figure success drives them apart.
The Four of Us is a sketchy tale told in a jazzy manner. Moses borrows from Tom Stoppard's Real Thing (some scenes are "real"; others come from David's play) and from Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which moves backward in time. In these nonlinear leaps, Moses displays a technical virtuosity. It slowly dawns on you that fact and fiction are doing a snakedance. Were the story told in a straightforward manner, however, interest might wane.
Moses, hailed as one of America's top young playwrights, occasionally breaks through his formalist preoccupations with genuine passion. The Four of Us is talky, but the dialogue flows like music and -- high praise -- like Mamet. At one point David exhorts his audience to take risks and lambastes critics (in some senses, the play's a "revenge comedy" against bad reviews and reviewers). Here the writing catches fire. But there are several annoyingly self-conscious moments as well, including a built-in review of The Four of Us, as if the playwright didn't trust his audience to get it.
Performing on a black floor with a patent leather shine, and aided by two scene changers (who watch the proceedings and might be the early Ben and David), Sean Dugan and Gideon Banner resemble a savvy comedy team, or halves of the same psyche. Dugan's David is scattered, lacking confidence, always overflowing, as if he has a DJ's fear of "dead air." Banner's self-contained Ben veers toward inscrutability (serious inscrutability: it would have helped to know what his novel was about, since both Ben and David often function more as rhetorical figures, as parts of a pattern, than characters). Under Pam MacKinnon's smart, unfussy direction, the tandem keeps the play watchable by deftly combining different acting styles: Banner suggests; Dugan italicizes.
Success doesn't change Ben in The Four of Us; it changes his friend. In Donald Margulies's Brooklyn Boy, another play about a breakthrough novelist, when Eric Weiss's book becomes #11 on the best-seller list, his whole world falls apart.
Unlike the famous Erich "Houdini" Weiss, Eric is no escape artist. He can't flee his Brooklyn neighborhood and Jewish roots. Not that he doesn't try, though two convoluted novels block his quest. So Eric returns to Brooklyn in fiction, with a best seller, and then returns at the death of his father, in fact. You can anticipate the play's click-your-heels-three-times ending practically from the get-go. But Brooklyn Boy's more about the journey than the destination. And in six richly crafted, temperamentally different scenes, Margulies turns what could be stereotyped characters into living, suffering, and often very funny beings.
The scenes are almost a dare to actors: you've got 15 minutes to go out there and create a fully dimensional being. When you leave that stage, we want to feel we've known you forever.
More often than not, the San Diego Rep's actors, under Todd Salovey's thoughtful direction, accomplish the task. By the end of Scene Two, Matthew Henerson has taken Ira, Eric's childhood friend who stayed in Brooklyn, through the zodiac of emotions. Deborah Van Valkenburgh does the cycle with two women: Eric's depressed ex-wife Nina (the saddest person in the play, who might be on an upswing) and Hollywood producer Melanie Fine (the most manic, who wants to take the Brooklyn and Jewish ethnicity out of Eric's script). As Tyler Shaw, Andrew Kennedy does a neat Margulies flip: before we see him, we expect Tyler to be a young, shallow Hollywood star. Then he walks in and, yep -- Narcissus with the IQ of an igneous rock. But when Tyler reads a scene from the script, he becomes what Eric's been looking for all along: an authentic voice.
On opening night, James Newcomb got a lot of Eric Weiss, but there's more to inhabit (especially the through-line: from passive/reactive to assertive). Robert Levine, as Eric's ailing father Manny, and Christy Yael, as first-time groupie Alison, provide telling moments. Yael gets another Margulies flip. In a play that excels with mature dramaturgy, young Alison confidently asserts that "fiction is, like, so over."
The Four of Us, by Itamar Moses
Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Simon Eidson Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Pam MacKinnon; cast: Sean Dugan, Gideon Banner; scenic design, Kris Stone; costumes, Markas Henry; lighting, Russell Champa; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through March 11; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.
Brooklyn Boy, by Donald Margulies
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Todd Salovey; cast: James Newcomb, Robert Levine, Matthew Henerson, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Christy Yael, Andrew Kennedy; scenic design, Giulio Cesare Perrone; costumes, Paloma H. Young; lighting, Jennifer Setlow; sound, Rachel Le Vine
Playing through March 4; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.