Christopher Shinn's Four is as spare as its title and, the shadowy atmosphere of the piece notwithstanding, a shining example of what minimalist theater can accomplish. Almost everything about it is stripped down, including Lauren Helpern's monochromatic set with two lightweight chairs as its only furnishings, David van Tieghem's bare- essentials music, and, most especially, Shinn's quietly spectacular dialogue.
The basic Aristotelian unity of time is also closely adhered to: The play takes place over the course of six hours on July 4, 1996 in Hartford, Connecticut. Yes, it's Independence Day, but a dark and murky one in which two pairs of essentially good but forlorn characters try with intermittent success to whip up some kind of holiday cheer. June (Keith Nobbs), a 16-year-old white boy who talks about loving his parents despite the girl's name they gave him, and Joe Phillips (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a 40- something, black, married English professor supposedly attending a conference in Boston, are hooking up as the result of an online chat-room flirtation. Meanwhile, the teenage Abigayle (Pascale Armand), who eventually is revealed to be Joe's daughter, at first resists the invitation of a gawky but athletic schoolmate named Dexter (Armando Riesco) to attend the local fireworks display but changes her mind. She joins the young man in his car for some making out and then returns home to care for her (unseen) invalid mother.
While there is action and event in Four, everything that happens is calculatedly understated. It all seems matter-of-fact, prosaic--even the September-March homosexual encounter wherein Joe picks up June at an abandoned parking lot and takes him, after much rambling car conversation, to see a movie and then to a motel room. (With her generally atmospheric design Traci Klainer does a nice job of creating the lurid Venetian-blind lighting common to all low-rate motels.) Dexter collects Abigayle and they make stops at the South Catholic High School playground before gonig to Dexter's bedroom for an unsatisfying coupling.
Although nothing of note ostensibly happens in Four, other than two adolescents losing their virginity, much is revealed. Through the perfect-pitch dialogue that Shinn has given his characters, he presents the quiet desperation in which they and, by extension, many of us routinely live. His impressive observation is that much of the four's dissatisfaction arises from their not knowing their desires. At least three of the characters repeatedly demand of another, "What do you want?" They almost never receive a clear-cut answer. What these people want is vague, unarticulated. The uncertainty is even extended to Mrs. Phillips, who lies in an offstage bedroom, refusing to express her needs. At one point, June, having murmured a string of "I guess"-es, does blurt out an adamant "no" when Joe suggests that they drop in at a gay bar called Chez; but this blatant refusal is, of course, an instance of June's saying what he doesn't want.
The inability to express wants is a modern trait that Shinn treats with precision. It's a hallmark of the era covered by the contemporary word "disconnect." Each of the four characters clearly longs to make human contact but isn't sure how to do so effectively. When they are together, they often remain separated, and their limited physical connections seem more like groping. On a few occasions, they yell at each other through unseen doors; whether they hear one another is uncertain. More than once, they tell stories in an attempt to share intimacies, but these stories have little resonance. In the long run, it's no accident that Joe and June rendevous and part in an abandoned parking lot: Abandonment is the operative condition of all four figures.
Another identifying characteristic of Four is the facility with which it skirts melodrama. Avoidance of direct conflict is sometimes a sign of a dramatist's timidity, but Shinn makes restraint a plus. That's the way life sometimes goes, he seems to be saying--even as he raises the possibility that Joe and Abigayle, driving around in different automobiles and considering the fireworks as an entertainment possibility, could bump into each other. They never do; nor does the infirm Mrs. Phillips call out, as she might have, for the gallivanting Abigayle. (Characters missing each other on the freeway are a feature of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film Magnolia with which Four, first performed at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1998, has some striking similarities.)
Because creating a sense of such palpable reality relies as much on the directing and acting as the writing, Shinn is fortunate in having the services of Jeff Cohen and a flawless cast. Here's a case where adroit under-writing has been matched perfectly by adroit under-playing. (Just the opposite was the case when Playwrights Horizons presented Shinn's Other People a season ago.) Cohen performs his duties so well that the piece, as it unfolds, seems not to have been directed at all and the actors don't seem to be acting. Keith Nobbs, who's thin and has the paleness of a boy with a bad diet, gives the best stage account of a nervous teen since Macaulay Culkin graced Madame Melville. His June smiles continually but only because he hopes that fixed expression will buy him out of commitment; when it doesn't, he jacks the grin up to an equally unrewarded, nervous laugh.
Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who has a chest like a beer barrel and upper arms like two kegs, also heh-hehs through his role. This is to the point, as Joe is attempting to seem as if he's having a good time when he sure as hell ain't. Whitlock also gives us the sense that, in Joe's search for pleasure, he's betraying the trust of a wife and daughter. Pascale Armand's Abigayle is nubile and bright but also an unaware tease: Her every inflection says, "This is today's smart and sassy young girl." As Dexter, Armando Riesco has hip-hop mannerisms down so firmly (the lope, the jerky hand movements, etc.) that he doesn't seem so much cast in the role as conjured for it.
This production has been transferred almost intact (Armand is new) to Manhattan Theatre Club by the Worth Street Theater Company from their Tribeca home. When Worth Street artistic director Cohen staged it last year on his outfit's considerably smaller stage, the characters' plights were underlined by a sense of claustrophobia. Uptown, where there is more space, the characters seem appropriately lost in it. Both venues worked. Bravo to Shinn, Cohen, and cast for maximizing the minimal wherever they are.