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Christopher Shinn knows how to paint a story. While some playwrights love to wax poetic and lose their characters in long-winded speeches drenched in flowery language and cerebral semantics, Shinn knows his characters far too well to shortchange them their gift of the vernacular. In Four, Shinn’s latest offspring of contemporary Americana, he leaves his streetwise and innocent young babes to tell their own tale through familiar dialogue that seems almost too honest, too pure for the stage. It’s an exciting feat for a play written when Shinn was just twenty-three.
Four tells the story of two awkward couples — one gay, one straight — as they search for themselves and each other one Fourth of July in Hartford, Connecticut (Shinn’s hometown). There are plenty of exploratory themes and sexually-charged banter between characters, but what is surprising about this contribution is its clever, progressive dialogue and the level of emotional clarity achieved by a play that explores the realities of “losing it ” in America.
June (Scott Kerns) is sixteen and barely able to peek out of the closet, but he has forged an online bond with Joe, an older, married English professor. June agrees to meet Joe (David Lamont Wilson) in an abandoned parking lot for a taste of his first blind date with another man.
Meanwhile, Joe’s sixteen-year-old daughter Abigayle (Maya Lynne Robinson) is home taking care of her sick mother. Abigayle flirts recklessly with Dexter (Cesar A. Guadamuz), another teenager who deals weed and never finished high school. Throughout the night, June and Abigayle will venture from movie theatres to motel rooms, basketball courts to bedrooms. Both share something they desperately want to lose, while seeking to gain what they think they never had.
In a covert display of shrewd writing sensibility, Shinn doesn’t focus his plot on two lambs being sent to slaughter — we know June and Abigayle will lose their virginity. Instead Shinn allows his audience to embrace that larger-than-life ecstasy of the unknown: the anticipation and anxiety, the sheer intoxication of sexual exploration and discovery. For June, it is the long-awaited release of his sexuality; for Abigayle, a chance to be free from the burdens of her home life.
The play is about emotional connection and fulfillment, and Shinn taps into these rich, emotionally-charged waters without bland exposition or historical briefing. His characters don’t pretend to achieve a level of self-awareness — there are no Party of Five kids here, disclosing their own neuroses and how they will make the journey to recovery. These are real kids with real problems, and they have no idea how to solve them.
Director Kate Davis allows her talented cast to take full command of the script in subtle ways. Through the inventive use of just two chairs on a bare stage, and with a few well-chosen props, all four actors transcend the text in a way that makes it difficult to imagine any others in their respective roles: each displays sharp comic timing and bold, dramatic interpretations.
It’s nice to see Guadamuz try on a comedic face for a change — his Dexter is delightful to watch as the trumping boy trying to grow up against all odds. Wilson is also a welcome stage personality and a real gift to Four. Eternally charming and charismatic, he is captivating as the married gay man with an agenda, balances his walking contradiction well with the heady intellect of a wise man and the childlike eagerness of the fool. Robinson is effective and compelling as a melancholic Abigayle with an attitude. And Kerns delivers an energetic, inspired performance as June.
Davis’ well-choreographed vignettes move quickly, and the climaxes are massively physical and clumsy — just as uncomfortable as the unknown should be. What really sparks here on this fiery Fourth are the vibrant performances of sharp, pointed dialogue, drawn like a bow and arrow in an ultimately smart, relevant play.