The Wunderkind

“Please stop using my biography as an excuse not to pay attention to what I actuallywrote. Yeah, I’m young. So what’s wrong with my play? It’s young. Why? Because that is the safest fucking thing you can possibly say.”—David, the playwright in The Four of Us, on the critical reaction to one of his plays

In the past few years, Moses’s plays have been trending more deeply personal. The Four of Us, written in 2004, is about ambition and literary competition, but also intimacy and what is left unspoken between men and between men and women. In “Afterword: An Introduction,” in the play’s published version, Moses describes its emotional backdrop: “It wasn’t yet clear that I’d be able to have anything resembling a self-sustaining career. Also, I had just ended a very long relationship, so I was spending a fair amount of time staring blankly into space.”

Moses says that after circulating the play in New York, he kept getting notes from “older people who were running Off-Broadway theaters” who “liked how the play was crafted, but they felt that nothing happened in it.” But he knew from the play’s earliest readings that it worked, that it keyed into his generation’s anxieties about competition and success. Media reports on The Four of Us speculated that it was inspired by his friendship with Jonathan Safran Foer—who had landed a six-figure advance for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, while Moses was still struggling. “That would just be a lie if I said that wasn’t true,” the playwright concedes. He drew on a variety of relationships for the play, but “there was an inciting incident there: what happens when this [success] happens to one person and not to another?”

The Four of Us, which moves both backwards and forwards in time, traces the relationship between an aspiring playwright, David, and a suddenly successful novelist, Benjamin, from the ages of 17 to 27. They ricochet between envy, loyalty, disappointment, and betrayal, and the risk of exposing those emotions was “part of what was exciting about it,” Moses says. It involved “trusting [that if] you look at what seems most idiosyncratic or vulnerable about you, the things you most want to hide, and then you put them out there,” then other people will respond, “‘How did you know?’”

The polished 2008 Manhattan Theatre Club production was a critical and popular hit. Even the skeptical Isherwood managed mild praise, calling the play “a clever if modest study of the strains that success can put on a sturdy friendship.” The Journal’s Teachout, already a fan, was star-struck: “Is there a more promising playwright in America than Itamar Moses?”

Although The Four of Us pivots on a stunning formal twist, it showed Moses stepping away from the elaborate high-wire acts of his earliest work. “The craft is gentler,” he says. “Who knows what factors play into it? Getting older, trusting the craft more, having the sense that people are looking at you—so you don’t need to order them to quite so much.”