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The Four of Us

by Itamar Moses

In my most recent trip to the Strand (seriously, I should get an endorsement deal), I found this gem. After my love of Moses' Bach at Leipzig, I was eager to read more of his work.

The story centers on best friends and writers, Benjamin - a novelist, and David - a playwright. Though the driving motivation throughout the play is David's jealousy of Benjamin's recent success (in the form of a two million dollar book deal), the most interesting moments to me came out of the guys' less heated exchanges. The love/hate friendship between the guys reminded me of Adam Rapp's characters in Red Light Winter.

The scenes jump around in time, showing the writers from ages 17 to 27 "though not in that order." We are first given a glimpse into the 'present' - Benjamin, having received his book deal is treated to a congratulatory lunch by David, and it is here that the green-eyed monster begins to show his head.

A few scenes later we jump back in time, when the guys were in Prague, where Benjamin began his book that would become his meal ticket and David spent most of his time at the bar, picking up ladies. Here the roles are slightly reversed, in that we see Benjamin's slight jealousy at David's ability to take a girl home whom he barely knows. His jealousy is masked in friendly concern (well, more like judgement), as he argues with David about the benefits of a relationship vs. random hook-up. He prefers to come home early and read letters from his girlfriend. "Love letters," David mocks. Benjamin responds:
Well: all letters are love letters.
In a way, I suppose they are. Especially these days, if someone is going to take the time to hand write you a letter or a card, there is more than likely some love behind it. There is a certain intimacy in seeing someone's handwriting.

David is not convinced as to the merits of relationships. He struggles with them, finding only the beginning to be satisfying, and the rest somewhat trying. He suggests:
..why not just have a series of very very beginnings, and if that isn't better, then why does it feel so much better?
The trick is finding someone who makes you feel like every day is better than the last. I think.

A big topic in the play is the public nature of writing. The difference between writing something just for yourself and writing something for the public... and potentially, writing something just for yourself that then becomes something for the public. Benjamin and David have differing points of view on this, even though both mediums - fiction and drama - are intended to be widely experienced. Benjamin, in a moment of frustration caused by speaking about the merits of graduate school, tells David:
Look, all I'm saying is: I think the thing to be afraid of is not that you will never publish, or whatever, but that you will never write anything good. And I think if I did write something good, if I knew that I had done that, I would be satisfied to let it just sit in a drawer forever. And I think that if that's not true, then the things I write probably won't be any good anyway.
That's easy to say, but if you wrote a masterpiece, no matter how humble you may be, I'm pretty sure you'd want to share it with someone. Probably lots of people. Preferably who give you money.

Here's where things get crazy. We learn that David has written a play, a successful play about his friendship with Benjamin, who has come to see the play and is upset about it. In their confrontation we learn that David has exaggerated moments that were in scenes that we saw, causing us to wonder if all of the previous scenes were the "show" or what really happened? It's a fun twist that makes the ending more poignant. The guys come to a point of reconciliation as David expresses the challenges of the workshop/preview process:

         David: People keep telling me to change it.
         Benjamin: Well, don't.
         David: Cool. Thank you.
         Benjamin: It's just what I think. (Beat.) People?
         David: Yeah, random people who insist on terrible ideas. It's called "collaboration."

I still prefer Bach at Leipzig, though apparently Charles Isherwood prefers The Four of Us, so there's that. Whichever you prefer, you won't be disappointed. I can't wait to see what Moses does next.

Tomorrow's Play: Henry IV, part 1 by William Shakespeare

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