Theater Review — The Fourth Wall

From today’s S.B. News-Press:
‘Fourth Wall’ is entertaining and troubling

Following on the heels of Genesis West’s production of Caryl Churchill’s deconstructionist “Blue Heart” last month, Ensemble Theatre Company’s presentation of A. R. Gurney’s “The Fourth Wall” adds to the boundary-breaking this theater season.
The play’s title alone suggests something meta-theatrical will be up. The invisible fourth wall that separates performer from audience — can it really be torn down? And does this mean an evening of mortifying audience participation?
Thankfully not, but Mr. Gurney’s play is an odd duck. Not too radical to upset the general public, it hints at subversion but hedges its bets in the second half. I can imagine many being entertained and pleased by Mr. Gurney’s work, but I can’t imagine many being deeply satisfied with it.
But there’s lots to like. We open on a suburban living room, radiant in warm, rosy colors. Two characters enter: Roger (Robert Lesser), a “successful businessman,” and Julia (Gillian Doyle), an old friend from New York. The dialogue is overwritten; the performances wooden.

Just as serious doubt begins to creep into our heads, the two regard the invisible fourth wall. We learn that Peggy (Nancy Nufer), Roger’s wife, has removed all decoration from the wall and turned all furniture to face it. By doing so, this theatrical feng shui causes all who enter the room to engage in stagy dialogue, to act facing the “audience,” and for behavior to devolve into a series of genre cliches. And one can only leave the room with a portentous line or bit of business.
It’s a grand conceit, for it causes an end to our suspension of disbelief, a shift for which Bertolt Brecht would have applauded. We start to notice the position of the furniture, the odd positions of actors, the stagy, forced angles of the room, the fact that the liquor cabinet is stocked with water masquerading as gin and ginger ale as champagne. It’s a Broadway meets Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” with bourgeois characters stuck in a room of their own making.
Peggy enters to explain why she has turned the room this way: the Bush administration. The stolen election, the invasion of Iraq, the loss of freedoms: All this has left American life with an air of artificial reality. If we can’t awaken from this play written by our leaders, why not take this feeling to its logical extreme?
The delightful frisson of Peggy’s situation is that she’s correct and incorrect at the same time. Like The Beatles sang, “And though she feels as if she’s in a play/she is anyway.” Yet our need to follow her story means we cannot consider her as such.
As Roger and Julie attempt to snap her out of it, their dialogue veers them instead toward both sex farce and musical comedy (the latter by way of a player piano that inspires its listener to launch into song).
To help Peggy, Roger calls on a young professor of theater studies, Floyd (Reed Armstrong), who also gets caught in the room’s spell. Peggy desires to break past bourgeois theater genres and return to a leftist populism that sets out to reveal truth and speak it to power (essentially the era of great American theater from Odets to Miller). And Floyd loves that idea. But this is a postmodern play, right?
Floyd undermines all his positions just by stating them. Suggestions that Peggy’s decisions could make a change in reality are negated by the fact that they come from the mouth of a character in a play. Floyd’s role in the play proves correct the theory that the successful ideologies are those that can contain their own criticisms and still survive.
If the play sounds overly intellectual, it’s not, or at least not in a way that stops the laughs from coming. The playwright, oddly enough, is A. R. Gurney, who most will know for his widely popular “Love Letters.” Who knew that he could muster up the anti-Bush rhetoric?
On the other hand, why isn’t there more anti-Bush rhetoric generally? And for that matter, can the American theater even survive as an art form if its most popular forms are the genres that “The Fourth Wall” sees as entrapment — musicals and sex comedies?
Mr. Gurney’s play asks these questions, but it doesn’t offer any answers. The play remains stuck as an example of a defeatist cul-de-sac. Even as Peggy and Roger break through the fourth wall, nothing lies beyond, and we are acutely aware that for all of her character’s desire, nothing will be achieved when the lights go up. Peggy will turn back into Nancy Nufer, the actor, and we the audience will wrap up warm and return home.

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