Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Foer of us

Bhavesh Patel is half of rather an odd couple in The Four of Us.

It's hardly a secret that The Four of Us (now at the Merrimack Rep) is a scénario à clef with the famously young, famously rich Jonathan Safran Foer at its center. In fact, said connection has become the slim, cynical comedy's chief marketing ploy; after all, the pitch is right there in the title. Sure, author Itamar Moses half-heartedly disguises "Jonathan" as "Benjamin," but the parallels between his script and his friendship with the Gen-Y novelist/Dave Eggers replacement are simply impossible to ignore. And even if the Merrimack muddies the waters a bit by making "Benjamin" Indian (which helps us forget that these two were basically smart Jewish kids who met at band camp), Moses eventually goes so meta (by the finale, the characters are watching the play, too) that we feel almost pinned to the postmodern wall: Admit it, Moses seems to be crying, you know who I'm talking about!

Yes, yes, Itamar, we do. And we admit we find him as irritating as you do. Foer skeptics (I count myself among them) who think of Everything Is Illuminated as brilliant-but-recycled will find a lot to back up their doubts in The Four of Us: "Benjamin" is a self-possessed prig with his nose to the keyboard/grindstone (Foer - at left - began writing to Susan Sontag at age nine) but with little in the way of original passion or vision. Indeed, a key problem with the clef of this play is that both "David" and "Benjamin" are self-aware but slightly dull; their late-night confessions are so dude-alicious (girls, beer, bands, and of course whether or not they're gay), that we simply have to take their being artists on faith. And as for being friends - why, exactly, do these likable young narcissists like each other? Shared ambition? Sense of humor? We never get a clue.

Although "David's" jealousy needs no explanation once a $2 million advance sends "Benjamin" into the lit-celeb stratosphere. Admittedly, Moses has a keen ear for (his own) envious psychological strategies - David is concerned that the payday may prove "totally spiritually corrupting" - and expertly punctures the ego of the unseen star who options Ben's novel (Liev Schreiber, who ineptly directed the movie of Illuminated, is the one with a real bone to pick with Moses). The playwright also conjures a smart, distracting series of formal tricks - flashbacks soon rub shoulders with flash-forwards, with the characters even commenting on them; it all plays rather like one of those puzzles you solve to stave off Alzheimer's.

But said tactics also stave off the need for development. Moses has an "out," of course, in that the yin/yang of this pairing is neediness vs. self-sufficiency (with the thematic sidebar of "needy" drama vs. "self-sufficient" fiction). Hence Ben's inscrutability, and David's pathetic attempts to penetrate it. Indeed, the final coup occurs when the "real" Benjamin asks the "real" David, "How could you write about me?" only to receive the reply "How could you not write about me?" There's something neat in this conceptual bow - but it's not really enough to tie up a play; if jealousy is eating away at something we have to understand what that something is. And at any rate, since when did complacent self-sufficiency ever put up with needy neurosis for long?

Still, the skilled cast and crew up at Merrimack manage, for the most part, to stave off these doubts, and keep us focused on Moses's jokes and structure. Bhavesh Patel makes of Benjamin an annoyingly confident, low-key buddy who's also a bit of a bully, while Jed Orlemann channels a sweet, slightly-damaged charm as David. And director Kyle Fabel never lets them stop for breath as they dash back and forth in time, as well as across Bill Clarke's witty set, which has apparently taken a tip from Liev Schreiber (whose apartment, according to Moses, is a shrine to his own image) in its wall-to-wall photo tribute to Ben and David. If only Moses's dramatic snapshots really got behind all those smiles.

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