Stage Spoof

Live Theatre Workshop does A.R. Gurney's 'The Fourth Wall' justice.

In theater lingo, the "fourth wall" is the imaginary barrier between the players on stage and the audience, that proscenium plane through which we peer at actors hoisting chunks of dialog up and down a plot line like the denizens of an ant farm.

The characters on stage, of course, presumably see the space as an ordinary wall--yet they oddly position themselves in front of it for the benefit of, to them, an unseen and unknown audience. Playwright A.R. Gurney takes this conceit as the basis of his intellectual spoof The Fourth Wall, currently playing at Live Theatre Workshop.

As usual for Gurney, the action is set in an upper-middle class WASP household in Buffalo, N.Y. Peggy, who usually has such exquisite taste, has inexplicably redecorated her living room so that the fourth wall is utterly blank--yet it is the focus of the room. Indeed, it makes everyone feel as if they've suddenly become characters in a plotless and rather dull play. Once they've entered the room, one of them points out, "We've begun to speak in an artificial and stagy way."

This seriously disturbs Peggy's husband, Roger, who seeks help first from his old, oversexed pal Julia and eventually from a professional--not a psychiatrist, but a theater professor named Floyd, a Marxist-postmodernist whose claptrap theories Gurney skewers most exquisitely. But Gurney doesn't let any other theater trend get by unscathed, either--certainly not Peggy's vague but fashionable desire, which is incorporated into most NEA grant applications, to break through the fourth wall to create a theater of social justice for a diverse, all-inclusive audience, not just the nice Jewish ladies who like Neil Simon.

Gurney, whose plays include Love Letters, The Dining Room and A Perfect Party (the latter produced by Live Theatre Workshop last year), writes very funny, intelligent satire that is sometimes hobbled by a self-conscious artificiality; his characters too often seem to suspect they're in a play, without letting on. But it's all on the table in The Fourth Wall, and Gurney finally barges all the way into a more thoroughly avant-garde camp, even while poking fun at the avant-garde. Indeed, Gurney simultaneously pillages and satirizes the entirety of theater history, from Aristophanes' Old Comedy political satires (Gurney's primary inspiration here, along with Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) to European sex farces, American suburban existential angst and TV sitcoms.

Gurney even works in a delightful reference to his own first successful play, The Dining Room. What "really" lies on our side of Peggy's fourth wall is a dining room. So if you broke through that fourth wall, one character points out, "you'd be in a totally different play." Nobody in the otherwise alert opening-night audience seemed to get that joke, alas.

The play's internal reality changes from moment to moment, depending on which theatrical genre Gurney is satirizing. And Gurney tries to get through them all; on five occasions, characters even break into Cole Porter songs against their will, as if they were suddenly trapped in a musical. (Not coincidentally, theater professor Floyd's last name is Loesser, as in Frank Loesser, the creator of Guys and Dolls.)

So this is a real romp for theater nuts, and good fun for anybody else with a smattering of intelligence. Live Theatre Workshop's production, directed by Matt Walley, does it full justice, although some viewers might be disappointed that Walley and the cast resist pushing some of the stage business completely over the top. Quite sensibly, I think, Walley and his actors place the play in a naturalistic framework, while delivering the dialog in a manner that is, as one character notes, stagy and mannered, yet not exactly stiff, nor completely hammy.

Personally, I wish Kristi Loera had played Peggy with more enthusiasm and intensity, but her serenely spacey approach is perfectly valid, and indeed calls to mind the half-mad Joan of Arc listening to some inaudible godly voice. This makes perfect sense once Floyd draws strained parallels between Peggy's situation and George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan.

Jeremy Thompson's Floyd, smug and domineering yet ultimately vulnerable, doesn't enter until well into the play, but he's worth waiting for--and, as has happened in the past, Thompson briefly stops the show with his entrance, with nothing more than the look on his face. Peg Peterson is a fine Julia, a confident and smart woman who knows the difference between being a sexual predator and being a tramp. And Richard Alpert finely manages the role of Roger, a beleaguered and hapless figure who gradually allows himself to be nudged to the side of the plot.

Oddly, none of them sing the Cole Porter songs with particular finesse, but maybe that's the point: Dull, ordinary people often flounder when they first realize that all the world's a stage.

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