* Written by Christopher Shinn * Directed by Jeff Cohen * Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City 

Christopher Shinn’s Four eloquently captures the things people don’t say on their way to not getting the love they want. Its quartet of characters couple up on the Fourth of July, hoping for fireworks. In the parking lot of an abandoned department store, June (Keith Nobbs), a painfully shy white gay suburban 16-year-old, reconnoiters with Joe (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.), an expansive black 40-ish married English teacher whom he met online. Joe is a nightmare of inappropriate behavior -- he asks what writers June admires and then trashes his opinions, takes him to the movies where he loudly asks personal questions and makes a call on his cel phone, and eats nonstop. June cringes, dodges Joe’s touch, looks like he’s about to bolt any second, and yet remains tethered to this stranger by the handcuffs of a desire he can’t name but only fumblingly reveal.

Meanwhile, Joe’s daughter Abigayle (Pascale Armand), who’s probably June’s age, tends her offstage sick mother while doing an elaborate dance of approach and avoidance with schoolmate Dexter (Armando Riesco), who’s every inch the stereotype of a jive-talking, basketball-playing homeboy except that he’s a red-haired white kid. She’s way too smart for him, challenges his idiotic banter at every turn, and smolders with hostility in his presence. Yet, like June, she is starving for sexual contact and is willing to mine acres of masculine obtuseness for an ounce of tenderness.

At 26, Shinn is a young gay writer with an impressively assured voice. Four and a subsequent play, Other People, were first produced in London, where one critic opined that “Shinn is an eccentric and willfully edgy love child of Stephen Sondheim and Woody Allen.” Awkwardness and indirection are the key colors on his palette, and if his plays are somewhat clunky, episodic, and repetitious, a strong whiff of recognizable humanity emerges from them in performance, a welcome relief from the mechanical cliches of TV and movies.

Four is supremely well-directed by Jeff Cohen, artistic director of the Worth Street Theater Company, where the production originated last summer with a different actor playing Abigayle. All four actors expertly manage to track simultaneously the ever-shifting emotional underscore and the stream of non sequiturs that pass for conversation between love-starved people too tongue-tied to ask for what they want. (In other words, People Like Us.) In particular, Whitlock masterfully lets us understand Joe’s boisterousness as his own mask for vulnerability, and Nobbs nails the terrified self-hatred that does battle with a gay teen’s longing to connect. Shinn’s landscape of desire is bleak but profoundly familiar.

written for The Advocate, August 2001, not published

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