Gideon Banner and Michael Esper in The Four of Us
(© Joan Marcus)
Gideon Banner and Michael Esper in The Four of Us
(© Joan Marcus)
There is perhaps something fitting that a season that practically began with the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Old Acquaintance -- John Van Druten's slight 1940 comedy about a pair of competitive female writer friends -- should begin to wind down with Itamar Moses' 2007 dramedy The Four of Us -- about a pair of competitive male writer friends -- which is getting a belated New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II.

And while this new work, nicely directed by Pam MacKinnon, is clearly heartfelt and often quite amusing -- one may never be able to look at a stuffed teddy bear in the same way again -- its insights into the nature of friendship are ultimately no more profound than Van Druten's play, or countless other theatrical and cinematic works on this oft-explored topic.

Indeed, by the end of the 95-minute two-hander, one can't be fully sure what ties truly bound Benjamin (Gideon Banner) and David (Michael Esper), who met as teenagers at a camp for aspiring musicians, and a decade later have become, respectively, an author whose first novel has garnered him great reviews and millions of dollars and a playwright with considerably less success. Moses' quasi-clever structure zig-zags through the years, which works more effectively as a commentary on the nature of memory than an illumination of his theme.

The ice-cool Benjamin and the hot-headed David are clearly a contrast in personalities, whose approaches to life and art cause them to clash repeatedly, whether sharing a summer sublet in Prague or hanging out at the apartment of a Hollywood star who has purchased the film rights to Benjamin's book. (The show's various locales are brilliantly conveyed by designer David Zinn, who magically changes what's behind the four blue doors that dominate the set.)

Moreover, what does not bind them, Moses makes clear -- both through action and even an explicit bit of dialogue in a late meta-theatrical twist -- is sexual desire. As much as one half-expects the proverbial shoe -- or pair of pants -- to drop, revealing one or the other's attraction for his pal, the playwright has made his characters unabashedly heterosexual. Yet, we aren't meant to see the two as "soulmates" -- they aren't Brick and Skipper -- but two guys who stay connected primarily through parallel experiences. It's an admirable, if not always interesting, choice.

As a result, the play's effectiveness rests primarily on its two-member cast, and MacKinnon has chosen wisely (just as she did in helming Moses' Bach at Leipzig at New York Theatre Workshop in 2005). Esper -- who has proved himself to be one of our most exciting young actors in works as diverse as As You Like It, subUrbia and the recent Me, Myself, & I -- gives a fully committed performance as David, grasping firmly onto the character's insecurities and making him sympathetic even in his least likable moments. (The scene where he has a breakdown in a post-show discussion of his play in Indiana, attacking both his director and his audience, is particularly striking.) Banner tackles the slightly harder assignment of illuminating Benjamin, whose vulnerabilities aren't exposed until late in the piece, with considerable aplomb.

In the end, The Four of Us may speak louder to twentysomethings or struggling creative types, who will see themselves in Benjamin and David, than other audience members. But anyone who has experienced a deep friendship will find something to relate to in Moses' work.