At the beginning of Itamar Moses’s Love/Stories (or But You Will Get Used To It), a series of short plays at the Flea Theater, the playwright himself makes the announcement to turn off all cell phones and unwrap bits of candy before the lights go down. Moses delivers the expected cell phone/candy jokes, in some detail, then asks audience members that are friends of his to e-mail him with some sort of comment after the show, even if it’s just, “I’m speechless.” His tone of voice is hyper-self-aware, and it’s meant to be disarming, but it’s so aggressive and cocky that its nominal basis in self-deprecation feels like a disingenuous ploy. This queasy balance between cleverness and put-on “don’t kick me” entreaty is reflected quite clearly in the plays themselves.
Moses caused a small stir last year with The Four of Us, a roman à clef about his longtime friendship/rivalry with the commercially successful young novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. There’s not much of Foer’s cloying “I live in Brooklyn and I marvel at the light on the trees” style in Moses’s work, but he can’t resist trying to get laughs with broken English, as Foer did in Everything is Illuminated. In the fourth play here, Maren Langdon plays a Russian actress trying to interpret the deep and sometimes salacious thoughts of her director/mentor (Felipe Bonilla). The way she paraphrases the titles of Chekhov’s The Seagull and The Three Sisters is funny, but not in any organic way, or in a way that can be tied to any larger point.
The most characteristic of the five plays here is Authorial Intent, which starts as a standard relationship drama between a guy (Michael Micalizzi) and a girl (Laurel Holland) who have just moved in together. After an uncertain conclusion, Holland and Micalizzi do the entire play again, only this time spelling out all of the “authorial intent” and all of their actorly motivation. After this, Holland and Micalizzi drop their characters and address each other as actors, or as themselves, seemingly after the show; they discuss Moses’s play, and Holland tries to speak positively about his writing, but finally says, “It’s just a role.” Micalizzi is self-deprecating about his appearance in exactly the same way that Moses was self-deprecating in his cell phone announcement, and it has the expected disarming effect on Holland. So we have a mediocre short play, followed by a deconstruction of it that makes it even less interesting than it was, and then a short, very believable interaction between two actors complaining about it. I suppose such self-criticism on Moses’s part could be construed as gutsy, but it’s just really uncomfortable.
Also uncomfortable is his portrayal of his female characters as unreachably mysterious and neurotic, especially in the second play, where a long-time temp worker (Langdon) has a meltdown over the phone with her boyfriend, succumbs to a lustful kiss with her co-worker (Micalizzi), then brushes him off completely when the boyfriend calls back. It’s an old Woody Allen joke, this sort of thing, something that needs to be left in the past. And wouldn’t you know it, Moses is aware of this problem in his writing too: in the fifth play, a writer figure (John Russo) goes on and on about how he’s too paralyzed and uncertain to write dialogue or even thoughts for his female character (Holland). Being aware of a problem isn’t salutary, finally, if you’re not going to fix it. The ball is in your court, Moses.