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Theatre in Review: The Fourth Wall (Theater Breaking Through Barriers/A.R.T. New York Theatres)

Pamela Sabaugh, Stephen Drabicki, Nicholas Vaselli. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The warning signs are there as soon as one enters the theatre: The play is called The Fourth Wall, so why has Bert Scott, surely at the behest of director Christopher Burris, designed a set with the audience on three sides? This is not nitpicking. A. R. Gurney penned a highly artificial comedy, written in the style of the boulevard entertainments of his youth, set in an upper-middle-class living room populated by a quartet of characters who make bright remarks while rearranging their love lives. As is always the case with him, he is paying tribute to the world of his past while simultaneously sending it up. "In New York, there used to be plays which began with an attractive woman and a charming man coming into a room and talking," says an attractive woman to a charming man. "This reminds me of the rooms they talked in," she adds.

Unlike the cocktail-and-cigarette charades of Philip Barry and S. N. Behrman, however, The Fourth Wall is self-conscious about its frivolities. The characters even seem to know that they are in a play -- which explains, for example, why the "champagne" in their goblets is in fact ginger ale, and why they are forever discussing such matters as exposition and subplots. Gurney even drags into the action a theatre academic to lecture one and all about dramatic devices before making a lunge for Peggy, the leading lady. Peggy, by the way, has arranged her living room so that all the furniture faces a single, unadorned wall; it looks like a set in a play and she is obsessed with pushing beyond that "fourth wall," where, she insists, she will find people who really matter.

Except there isn't just a fourth wall in this production: there are fourth, fifth, and six walls, a decision that undermines the script's specific terms. If The Fourth Wall is to work, it must be done in the style of a mid-twentieth-century Broadway entertainment, complete with a box set that represents the physical and philosophical prison from which Peggy -- a born rebel itching to take political action -- is determined to escape. Burris and Scott have altered the landscape of Gurney's satire, and in doing so they have nearly done away with it altogether.

Then again, one must wonder why, given Gurney's output of fifty-plus comedies to choose from, anyone thought the time was ripe for a revival of this one. Written in 1992 and revised after the 2000 presidential election, it is an early example of the political comedies that make up so much of his later work. In addition to breaking through her own fourth wall, Peggy is intent on making her way to Washington, where she intends to inspire George W. Bush to become the chief executive the nation deserves. (How this is to happen is left maddeningly unclear -- and, in truth, Peggy doesn't appear to be in any hurry about it.) This leads to many complications: Roger, Peggy's frantic husband, is chased by Julia, her so-called best friend; the professor, whose given name is Floyd, is introduced to advise on the evening's dramaturgy, but instead, he spends his time chasing the ladies. Peggy's quixotic plan to influence Bush leads to comparisons with Shaw's Saint Joan, which, to say the least, is overstating the case, since she has no real plan or vision. It's especially mystifying that, in 2018, we should be expected to care about Gurney's very mild jokes about the second Bush Administration. One wants to say to Peggy, Honey, we've got much bigger problems now.

There's no getting around the fact that The Fourth Wall is one of Gurney's flimsier concoctions, filled with the sort of jokes that might have them sniggering in the faculty lounge after a couple of sherries, but which are likely to leave the rest of us mystified. A meeting between Peggy and the other female character is described as a "tit à tit." The academic, I'm pained to report, is named "Professor Loesser." (It has to do with a devotion to the writer of Guys and Dolls, but I'm still not buying it.) The professor, by the way, is supposed to have a bed-wetting problem; I'm still thinking about why this is supposed to be funny.

When last done in New York, at Primary Stages, The Fourth Wall got the better of such nimble high-comedy technicians as Sandy Duncan, Charles Kimbrough, Susan Sullivan, and David Pittu; the last was notably winded by the professor's long and not especially amusing addresses. Sadly, Burris has assembled a cast that demonstrates no affinity for this sort of artifice; instead, they perform in a variety of clashing styles, none of which suit Gurney's comedy. This is especially surprising in a company that has adroitly managed material ranging from the straight-up naturalism of Samuel D. Hunter to the vaudevillian farce of Charles Ludlam. Even worse for a play in which, every so often, someone bursts into a Cole Porter song, none of them can sing; Gurney chose an intriguing list of Porter rarities, but, for anyone who loves vintage show tunes, these interludes are painful.

If Scott's set design is wrong-headed, it is, at least, attractive and indicative of the characters' above-average standard of living. His lighting is generally fine, although I got tired of the wash that came up on the audience every time Peggy spoke about breaking through the fourth wall. Similarly, every time she enters, we hear bells, an allusion to Joan of Arc; Andy Evan Cohen is responsible for this and the player piano that accompanies the actors in their warblings. Courtney E. Butt's costumes are solid.

But The Fourth Wall, even in a really first-class production, offers not champagne, but the ginger ale for which the characters are forced to settle. In this case, the ginger ale is flat. -- David Barbour


(7 June 2018)

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