Keith Nobbs and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. in Four(Photo: Christopher Shinn)
Keith Nobbs and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. in Four
(Photo: Christopher Shinn)
"We're breaking the law," points out Joe, a middle-aged, husky black man, to June, a timid, 16-year-old white boy. "This state has adultery laws." A brief glance at the two reveals that they have more worries, legal and otherwise, than that antiquated statute might cause them. In another scene, Joe's daughter, Abigayle--who is June's age--suggests to her date, Dexter, that men only want sex. Dexter responds, "Damn! You watch too much Ricki." Imagine the teaser for a talk-show version of this play: "On the next Ricki Lake--'Dad, you're in major trouble if you don't stop messing with minors!'

Although the subject matter of Worth Street Theater's Four can certainly lend itself to sensationalism, playwright Christopher Shinn's talent stops this show from sinking to such depths. In fact, the play has the humanity of a Nabokov novel (guess which one). It opens with a phone call as June tells Joe to meet him in an abandoned lot; the two originally hooked up on the Internet, a thriving place for predators. The stage is set for a shady encounter, but the pedophile does not match the audiences' expectations. As his name might suggest, Joe (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) seems "average"--he's a married professor and a part-time volunteer who loves his daughter. He also loves driving, fast food, and the movies, because they are just so "American!"

June (Keith Nobbs), as his own name suggests, is a slightly effeminate young man who wants to squash any outward sign of his homosexuality; he whispers through conversations about gay culture and tells of severing ties with his middle school friend, Todd, after Todd became flamboyantly gay. Joe makes sport of June's repression, tossing the word "faggot" around in casual conversation to shock him. He offers to drive June to Todd's house, chiding: "You're not scared of a stranger from the computer, but you're scared of someone who is your friend?" But Joe talks a better game than he can play; June initiates most of the sexual advances, and Joe's gibes mask his own repression, his need to keep up the facade of a strait-laced, married man.

Joe is an atypical predator in that he seems to really care for June; although he will sleep with the minor, he won't buy him alcohol, for example. Christopher Shinn does not demonize, glorify, or whisper his characters' "love that dare not speak its name." Rather, he puts it on public display, as when June strips before Joe in a seedy motel. (Lest this sound like a highly objectionable instance of stage nudity, be advised that director Jeff Cohen has June face away from the audience when disrobing.) Joe advances toward the condoms and lubricant. Then, nearly reduced to tears, he says "You're a beautiful boy" as he shuts off the lamp.

This affair takes only half of the play's focus, albeit the greater half; Abigayle (Vinessa Antoine) and Dexter (Armando Riesco) are the other two characters who make up the four of the title. Abigayle spends the evening with Dexter to get rid of "these thoughts in my head." Her father has left town "on business" again, her mother (who never appears onstage) is beset by a mysterious illness, and Abigayle is beginning to perceive a connection between these two facts. We discover that Joe has been taking "business" excursions since the early '80s, and that he once ran into one of his past flings getting an AIDS test at a clinic where Joe volunteers.

Vinessa Antoine and Armando Riesco in Four(Photo: Christopher Shinn)
Vinessa Antoine and Armando Riesco in Four
(Photo: Christopher Shinn)
Do the math, but don't expect a neat solution. Shinn's ambiguous text does not allow for any pat answers. However the equation works out, Abigayle leaves the house to avoid it, and she uses sex to escape it further. The one problem: Dexter wants their relationship to be meaningful, though he eventually gives in to lust. Sex has provided a way for these two to avoid their problems, as it has done for Joe and June.

With such heavy themes, one is thankful that the playwright offers comic relief. When June talks about his high school essay on the homeless, Joe asks, "For or against?" Laying out a running joke, Dexter says to Abigayle, "I talk like I'm black and you talk like a white girl." Even their costumes continue the bit: Dexter wears a yellow basketball tank top, a studded earring, and a fade haircut, whereas designer Veronica Worts costumes Abigayle in a plaid dress that seems straight from the Gap.

Still, the tone of the production is primarily dark. Traci Klainer's lighting features lots of muted blues. Scott Menchin's projected images include silhouetted fences and trees. Lauren Helpern's minimal set boasts four chairs, four platforms, and a ramp. Sound designer Paul Adams adds somber, new age music to the dramatic scenes, stopping just short of bringing on the violins. Supplementing dialogue with music is more often the practice in cinema than live theater, and Shinn's play is, indeed, very cinematic; the scenes shift so quickly that they almost seem spliced together. As Joe and June speed down a highway, a strobe light indicates the cars they pass, creating the excitement of a chase scene in a movie blockbuster.

For all of its cinematic devices and stage conventions, realism drives this show. After all, the playwright can't humanize the characters if the actors don't show us their humanity. Evoking sympathy for a pedophile is no easy task, but Shinn and company are up to the challenge.