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Guy Boyd and Peter Maloney in Four Beers
(Photo © Richard Termine)
David Van Vleck's Four Beers is as direct and unaffected as its straightforward title. A quartet of middle-aged guys -- one clearly older than the 59 he'll reluctantly admit to -- gather in a separate room at what the program characterizes as a "middle-class bar." They're there for their usual Monday Night Football get-together and dismayed to discover the television is on the blink. They decide to stick it out anyway and settle on just talking among themselves as the way to fill the lengthy time-out that the sidelined boob tube has suddenly afforded them.

The initial topic of conversation is raised when Frank (Peter Maloney), who arrives first with George (Guy Boyd), mentions he has reason to believe his wife is having an affair. George suggests they keep the unpleasant news to themselves, but Frank can't stop himself from blabbing to Phil (Robert LuPone) and Mitch (Lee Wilkof) when they show up, as well as to Mel (Michael Cullen), an unexpected late drop-in whose wife has recently died.

Frank's possibly errant spouse isn't the only item on the random chat agenda, however. Other subjects come up that could be described as small talk or, in the circumstances, small beer. And for one reason or another, death infiltrates the discussion repeatedly, which disturbs George more than the others. George, by the way, is adamant on a number of things, such as America being the greatest country in the world and John Wayne and Gary Cooper being manly embodiments of the fact. His proclamations, along with some of the others' responses to them, are cause for humor and eventually pathos. "What I'm saying is," he blurts in one of his declarations, "the American religion, the one the knights fought for, is the head religion! God and Christ! You can't get better than God and Christ. Everybody knows that."

Van Vleck's implied intention in this variation on the nothing-happens scenario becoming increasingly familiar nowadays is that frequently something of great import occurs while nothing appears to be happening. This is also a familiar dramatic ploy but one Van Vleck handles with appealing subtlety. A young playwright, he has obvious affection for the men twice his age whom he's introduced in this bar play. They're a dry cleaner, a mechanic, a photo store owner, a barber, and a mailman distressed at so much fourth-class mail. The dramatist has empathy for the everyday uncertainties that corrode his characters' already fragile self-respect. Speculating on why his wife might be cheating on him, Frank suggests, "Maybe she's tired of the life I gave her. Maybe she thought we'd be better off by this time in our life. Maybe she's sick and tired of being Mrs. Frank's Dry-Cleaning."

Playwright Van Vleck prompts their revelations, their recognizable bromides, their one-on-one squabbles and a couple of eventual outbursts with a deft hand. He's just as agile when he decides these beer-guzzlers are also going to do some crying in that freely flowing beer. (Four beers? No way. The fellows put away many a pitcher. Mel drinks only rye.) Van Vleck also resolves the slipping-around-wife issue with an unexpected twist that gives an additional dose of poignancy to his intermissionless piece.

In a mood piece like this where tone rather than action is crucial, it's up to the director and the actors to make sure everything clicks. And although none of the men on stage can ease past the few repetitive dialogue patches, they nonetheless make a gallant ensemble, nimbly guided by Roger Danforth, who's thought of the little directorial details that ground a play like this in reality. When, for instance, Frank and George arrive at their regular perching ground in the bar, they push two tables together as if it's merely routine. In their weekly visits, it undoubtedly is. Another director might have called for one larger table, but Danforth saw the advantage of two.

Peter Maloney, Guy Boyd, Michael Cullen, Lee Wilkof,
and Robert LuPone in Four Beers
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Peter Maloney as Frank has a round face with round eyes in which disappointment seems to have taken up squatter's residence. A reliable New York City character actor -- as are all the men in the cast -- Maloney only lets worry lift from his rounded shoulders when the script gives him reason. Playing Mitch, Lee Wilkof is the accommodating chum, the guy who is eager to be everyone's pal and the one who lets slights roll off his back rather than pursue confrontation. Mitch has borne the death of a son and his wife's continuing grief over the event, and Wilkof infuses his performance with those character sentiments. Michael Cullen's Mel trembles properly between keeping mourning at bay and giving in to it. He gets plenty mileage out of the plot turn which has Mel forgetting his wallet and allowing his friends to pick up the tab for his ryes and steak. Robert LuPone as the equable Phil has the least demanding of the roles, and delivers another of his typically smooth portrayals.

Guy Boyd wears a Giants T-shirt, with his beer belly (what else in something called Four Beers?) hanging over his belt like one of Frank Gehry's Bilbao museum wings, and he's the one with the widest emotive range to cover. Perhaps he might do it with more restraint. The least smart of the buddies, he's so bombastic from the start that by the time he lets the others in on his true feelings and frustrations, he has hardly any place to go. Boyd is a big man and his mere presence is a strong statement; he might have relied more on that fact.

The production, which -- according to the program -- has been financed to some extent by an inordinate number of Van Vlecks, is entirely serviceable. Since a middle-class bar is asked for, set and lighting designer Roman Tatarowicz has nicely obliged with his pair of tables, knockabout chairs, dart board, and liquor shelves on what seems to be an upstage corridor connecting the friends' hang-out with the rest of the establishment. Nevertheless, some observers might wonder why the men are at a middle-class bar and not, given their occupations and demeanors, a more working-class saloon.

Sound designer Antonio Garfias plays Frank Sinatra before the lights go up, but after that keeps the music spilling from the main room very low. He and director Danforth might have thought to include the sounds of unseen patrons, since a bar where no one else comes or goes seems unlikely. The topcoats -- it's apparently winter -- costume designer Jenny Mannis has found for the men, and which mostly hang on a rack, are exactly right as are the rest of their togs, in particular George's piece of Giants memorabilia.

Full disclosure: For quite a few years I have served as a judge at the annual Dayton Playhouse FutureFest, which is the country's only community theater new play contest. Two years ago the winner was Four Beers. I completely supported the decision. I don't, however, believe that my having concurred in that choice has predisposed me to favor the play. I only feel that my judgment is confirmed as to its merits as an examination of male-bonding concatenations. Roger Danforth was also a member of the panel, and although I had no idea until the announcement of the production arrived, that he had affiliated himself with the work, I can only congratulate him on his perspicacity.

Four Beers has a good head on it.

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