CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Great Performances Anchor Melancholy ‘Four’
CHICAGO – Like so many great plays, Joshua Sanchez’s debut drama “Four,” adapted from the stage by Christopher Shinn, is a tale of people who can find sexual connections but long for something more. It is about two hook-ups on the Fourth of July, both of which seem to do little to break their participants from their melancholy, and one of which has the potential to tear a family apart. Anchored by stellar performances from the always-great Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”) and newcomer Aja Naomi King, “Four” is a performance piece that works on those terms even when the dialogue feels a bit too theatrical and forced. On the stage, we’ve come to expect dialogue-heavy scenes of self-examination and personal revelation that feel more forced when transferred to celluloid. However, Pierce and his co-stars never allow the melodrama or philosophizing to get in the way of their well-defined character work. The film opens in select theaters, including Chicago, this weekend.
June (Emory Cohen, “The Place Beyond the Pines”) is a closeted teenager looking for a connection, physical or emotional. He finds something in Joe (Pierce), a man he meets online for anonymous sex who becomes something of a twisted father figure. Joe mentions early on that their date, taking place on the Fourth of July, is illegal because Joe’s married but there are certainly questions of age that Sanchez & Shinn avoid explicitly but that always hang in the air. As Joe seems to want to drag June out of the closet, encouraging him to be open with his friends and family, he takes on a dynamic with the young man that wouldn’t exist were they the same age. It makes for an uncomfortable relationship that adds a nice dramatic layer to the piece by virtue of how different these two people are, not just in race, age, and physical appearance, but in so many other ways as well.
Photo credit: 306 Releasing
Meanwhile, Joe’s daughter Abigayle (King), who believes that her dad is on one of many business trips he takes, leaving Abigayle to care for her ill mother alone, flirts with a boy named Dexter (E.J. Bonilla). Again, Sanchez and Shinn play with race a bit as the two discuss Dexter’s background (half-white, half-Hispanic) and even Abigayle’s racial identity is called into question. They have a natural, easy flirtation that leads to the inevitable but “Four” is not just a film about sexual encounters on a holiday. It’s a character piece, fully defining its quartet of players, each distinctly different from each other and yet each also looking for some sort of connection as fireworks explode overhead.
I like “Four” almost as much for what it’s not as for what it is. Naturally, there’s a concern that the film will be about a man, Joe, who wants a boy to come out of the closet but gets exposed himself. Whenever a film sets up a gay character and that character’s child as leads, the assumption is that it will lead to that emotional moment when the kid realizes dad is gay. With no spoilers, “Four” goes believable places but avoids the trappings of traditional melodrama. It’s more about unease – the depressed mother in the back room, the father who’s always away, the kids who will mock you for your sexuality, the girl who you think may be too good for you – and it allows these themes to simmer rather than place them front and center.
Photo credit: 306 Releasing
There’s still way too much flourishy, no-one-talks-like-that dialogue in “Four,” particularly in the opening scenes of the date between June and Joe. Dialogue in a darkening movie theater sounds particularly forced and material later in a hotel room between the two doesn’t resonate much more truthfully. But the performers always find a way to anchor the material to truth even when it threatens to drift away. As he so often is, Pierce is completely believable, finding lovely quiet moments of character development underneath the overly underlined dialogue. Cohen is a little less effective but King makes up for it. She’s a natural talent, beautiful and fascinatingly real.
In the end, I must admit that I’ve always been attracted to character pieces. Perhaps it’s my theater background coming through. And I particularly like it when a piece like “Four” doesn’t try to make a grand statement about the human condition but instead focuses on the truth of its characters. Joe is a man who thinks he may have the answers for June, when really he’s still trying to find them for himself. Movie theaters, motel rooms, darkly lit basketball courts, and a girl’s bedroom – these are places in which people try to find happiness or just a moment’s peace. Despite its screenwriting shortcomings, “Four” captures that search through the truth of its performances.