22 March 2008

In Which I Get a Little Love Lettery to Itamar Moses, In a Way I Hope Is Not Weird

Three or four years ago (I feel old) I was working at a talent agency, and on this fateful day I was printing a script for a client's upcoming audition. I believe it was on the first page that I read something along the lines of BERTOLT BRECHT enters, wearing a placard hung from his neck that reads "Bertolt Brecht." Obviously, I read the whole play right then. It was Outrage, by Itamar Moses, and I loved it. Of course, when I told Allison about this amazing new playwright I'd discovered she was all, "Pfft, old news, duh." But still. I haven't thought about this before, but it's probably rare that I read a play with no preconceptions whatsoever - no buzz, no agent's letter, no word of mouth about the person or play. So Itamar, rising star that he already was, felt like my own little discovery.

Bach at Leipzig at NYTW last year was delightful, one of the most exuberant plays I've probably ever seen, and I've gotten to work with Itamar a wee bit (I'm disclaiming potential-but-nonexistent bias here and explaining where I'm coming from, not showing off), to know other plays and unfinished bits of things. I sort of felt like I knew his deal - energetic writing, funny and poignant, clever (slightly pomo) structure, a tendency to tie things up neatly at the end - so when I went to MTC Wednesday night to see The Four of Us, I was excited but not expecting any great surprise.

On the one hand, I wasn't surprised. The Itamar hallmarks were all there, except maybe for his affinity for "topics" (death row, 18th Century composers, video games), though maybe this topic, the strained friendship between a young playwright and novelist, is just another topic all the same, for all that the topic is Itamar himself. But what I wasn't expecting was to be so completely won over. He'd do something, say something structurally clever, and I'd think, Oh, Itamar, there you go, being structurally clever, but before I could even finish the self-satisfied thought, what he was doing was working on me, and I was totally drawn in and engaged, thinking about the high school friends I've lost touch with, thinking about friendship and insecurity and art, and totally following his characters. You think, Psht, this play totally favors one side of the argument, and you think that's a flaw, but then he turns it around on you and makes that feeling part of the story he's telling, uses it to get you somewhere else. And the neat, bring-it-full-circle ending is there, but three scenes from the end, and I'm okay with that.

I was trying to explain to someone what this play is like, to describe Itamar's writing. A Donald Margulies comparison comes up because of the subject matter (artist betrays/hurts/leaves behind his friends/family when he finds success! aka almost every Donald Margulies play ever), but Margulies is also a conversational realist I happen to love, so whatever. I don't know if Itamar's more of a realist than other hot! new! playwrights, or if he just plays more with structure than language, but I think, on a scale of Donald Margulies to Adam Bock, he's a solid five. There's an energy to the language that takes it out of naturalism, but it's not highly stylized. Although, again, structurally (thinking about Bach at Leipzig again, here), it actually sort of is.

Part of what impressed me so much about The Four of Us was how almost calculated the structural cleverness seemed, and yet it was still so affecting. Maybe that's a contemporary way to be Brechtian. (OMG, I didn't even mean to, but I'm totally bringing this neatly full-circle.) While I was watching the clever structural twistiness, I was thinking about my own friendships - we're reminded that the play we're watching is a play, but at the same time invited to become more emotionally invested with that reminder. There's also a level of the story he's telling that's outside the play itself, that is the telling of the play's story. Which is just barely mindfucky but also turns out to be really affecting.

This is all just a surprisingly long-winded way of saying that I very much liked this play, and I also loved the production. The cast is great, and the set is smart and awesome - similarly to the play, a change would happen and I'd be noticing how clever, how ingenious, but that awareness didn't detract from my engagement. Someone more analytically inclined might tear this play a new one, tell me why the structural whatsits are manipulative or simplistic, or the storytelling's crude or some other thing I don't think I agree with. They might have strong, smart arguments about why they're right. Or maybe not. All I know is that I was in the middle of a really amazing book on Wednesday, but I didn't read at all on the subway ride home. I just sat and sighed every so often and appreciated the play I'd just seen. It was a really nice feeling to hold onto.


Johnny said...

To add a little fuel to the fire, have to chime in that you're more right about this play than you've been in a long time (which is significant because you are often right).

I shed two genuine tears - not all out sobbing, but singular tears that could only have come from recognizing perfection - at two distinct moments in this play.

Plus they play Belle and Sebastian beforehand! Get there early!

Brett said...

Ran across your blog doing random searching for Itamar Moses. I saw 4 of us last night, and I'm a little obsessed to find out more about him. After Bach At Leipsig, I knew I would see any play by this budding genius, and now 4 of Us confirms it for me. Yeah, theater snobs and bitter queens have torn into me for liking his work, but that's more their problem, not mine. "Genius" is the word that comes to mind. Is that why it was the last word of "4 of us"? It certainly applies to both characters' real life counterpoints and the play itself.

Jaime said...

Brett, I'm totally a theatre snob, and I love Itamar's work. There's snobbery, and then there's closed-mindedness.

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