Gideon Banner & Michael Esper: The Two of Them and 'The Four of Us'

From the pen of youngster playwright Itamar Moses, helmed by youngster director Pam MacKinnon and interpreted by youngster actors Michael Esper and Gideon Banner - Manhattan Theatre Club presents The Four Of Us - a story of male companionship that reverberates for audiences young and old!

"When Benjamin's (Banner) first novel vaults him into literary stardom, his friend David (Esper), a struggling playwright, is thrilled for his newfound success...or is he? The Four Of Us is a poignant new play about friendship and memory, the gap between our stories and our lives, and what happens when your dreams come true - for your best friend," describe press notes.

BroadwayWorld caught up with both men between shows yesterday to discuss their amiable characters in this delightful new comedic drama that shines a soft blue light on the intimacy and fragility of friendship…

Eugene Lovendusky: Congratulations to you both for exceptional performances all around, and for making your Manhattan Theatre Club debuts! How did either of you become involved with The Four of Us?

Gideon Banner: I actually knew Itamar in college; we were in the same class at Yale together. I didn't know him very well then, but we hooked-up afterwards. I did his one-acts [Untitled Short Play and Authorial Intent/Idea] and then they brought me in to audition for The Four Of Us at The Old Globe - and I've stayed with it since.

Michael Esper: I just came in to audition for Pam and Itamar a few months ago. Then read with Gideon and got in.

Gideon: We actually knew each other previously. He was in Big Bill at Lincoln Center and I understudied his role.

Eugene: Director Pam MacKinnon translates Itamar's text from page to stage really fluidly… what hand did Itamar in putting it to the stage?

Michael: He's a fiery dictator of a man! [laughs] No, I'm kidding! He's incredibly supportive. The dynamic in the room was fantastic; really wonderful, free and fun. A great environment to try things out, explore and play.

Gideon: Somewhat like his plays, he has an admirable bluntness sometimes about what he thinks about what he's written. Which is not to say that he's critical; but if you ask him a question, he'll give you a great answer - which is a great quality to have in the room. He doesn't over-shadow the director, he doesn't nay-say, but he definitely has input. And he was an actor as well, which is helpful, because he understands our perspective a little bit. If we get stuck with a line, we can ask him: "What are you getting at?" and he'd say: "I don't know! Whatever you think is great!" And Pam is extraordinarily supportive. She has this unique ability to allow people to explore and flower while shaping the play at the same time.

Michael: She allows enormous freedom, but without ever making you feel like you're adrift.

Eugene: Charles Isherwood from The New York Times summed it up pretty plainly saying you're "two likeable actors playing two likeable characters."  To that end, how did you approach your characters?

Michael: That's funny… I find them both really unlikable! [laughs] And Gideon is just an intolerable person to be around, so it's a real achievement! [laughs] I just really love them! I love Itamar's writing; and I love David and Ben's relationship so much - as fraught as it is. They're flawed people. But I love how Itamar doesn't do anything to sugar-coat or sentimentalize that.  It was not a hurdle to take these characters on.

Gideon: Itamar has a remarkable ability to take his vulnerabilities and flaws and write them onto the stage - not for the sake of exposing or some personal catharsis - but really for the sake of showing those parts of all of us that are weak, vulnerable, desire intimacy, fear intimacy. And that's what the play is about - intimacy between two heterosexual males.  And of course how it's affected by time and money and distance and girlfriends. But to me, that is what's most touching: How do two guys remain friends?

Eugene: We learn so much about their relationship from each scene. Especially with the bonding scene when you're smoking pot in a dorm room - juxtaposed when neither of you are there for each other when calling each other on the phone.  Is there a specific moment in the play that you feel is the most revealing truth about their character?

Gideon: I don't know if I can privilege one line over another, but there is one scene: In the dorm room when he comes to visit and it's revealed that something very serious is going on. I love that because - with a lot of guys, they don't say upfront what's torturing them. It can take some kind of drawing it out and that's a beautiful closeness the characters share.

Michael: I love that scene a lot, too - because it seems to contain the blue-print for their entire relationship. They sort of go through all the stages of closeness, frustration, an argument, a confession, a reaching-out, some shared consolation. We open-up to each other. We make fun of each other.

Eugene: I wanted to finish your sentence there and say (apart from sounding text-book)… that's what guys do! So much of this play is familiar and personal. The relationship between David and Benjamin is fundamentally "modern-masculine." Do you think the conflict in the play would translate as well if they weren't male characters?

Gideon: I think the one thing that would translate either way would be the feeling of jealousy, or how a friend's success can radically change a friendship.  But the quality of the intimacy that pervades the play may not translate the same if they were women.

Eugene: Some people may feel jealousy is almost an involuntary emotion. At the same time, both of you play with humility a lot - and I feel sometimes "being humble" is a decision. At any point during the story, do you feel David Or Benjamin may be too humble for their own good?

Gideon: In terms of Benjamin, I'd say no. It's a situation in which he's placed. He's written a novel and then it's published to this great acclaim and all of a sudden, people's attitudes to him change. Clearly, you don't want to play severely humble because that comes off as pretentious. And certainly you don't want to lord it over everybody. But at the same time, he's experiencing this joy of the success and people will be reading his book. It's hard to judge that humility - I think it's a necessary humility. It's one that I admire in the character - he's humble without having to minimize his accomplishments.

Michael: I don't think David is too humble. I think he's more afraid that he's not going to have the life he wants, or that he's not as good a writer as he hopes he is. He has real insecurities and fears, but I don't think that's the same as actual humility. I don't think self-deprecation or self-doubt should be conflated necessarily with being humble. True humility may be a sort of antidote to those things. Something nice that happens to him is that once he gets his play up, there is a new sort of ownership in himself. He's a bit stronger towards the end of the play.

Eugene: Manhattan Theatre Club does have its subscriber groups and older patrons, but this is also a very young-feeling play. Would you encourage young people to come see it?

Gideon: Absolutely! Older audiences certainly enjoy it and understand it. But I've been encouraging my peers to come see it because it's so relatable.  Not only to young men - but my fiancee says the characters are both very attractive to young women.  What's exposed on-stage is a quality of male intimacy that women see but other men don't see.

Michael: I definitely wish I could have seen this play when I was in college. I remember having conversations and really close relationships like this. My friends and I would talk about one thing or another thing, but we were really talking about how we should live our lives, and how we should hold ourselves in relationship to the world and other people and our work, and figuring out what we wanted to do and how to do it, and whether or not we would succeed and how that would mean… Watching people wrestle with those things on-stage is so valuable.

The Four Of Us, by Itamar Moses, directed by Pam MacKinnon, with Gideon Banner and Michael Esper.  Now playing Manhattan Theatre Club - Stage II (131 West 55th Street). For tickets ($25 student, $50) or information call CityTix at 212-581-1212 or visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com

Photos, top-bottom: Gideon Banner and Michael Esper (2008, Henry Leutwyler); Gideon Banner (2008, Joan Marcus); Michael Esper (2008, Joan Marcus)

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Eugene Lovendusky Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF Bay Area, his love for the arts bloomed at an early-age; a passion that has flourished in NYC, where Eugene now lives and works. He is a proud member of the New York City Gay Mens' Chorus.