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A.R. Gurney’s The Fourth Wall at New Milford’s TheatreWorks

By David Begelman, Citizen News


There is more to playwright A. R. Gurney than meets the eye. Some critics view him as a dramatist who has a flair for depicting characters who inhabit a genteel, waspish world. Yet signs of a widened sensibility are also apparent in the work of the Buffalo-born playwright. Many of his dramas have small casts, a trend originally designed to accommodate the production values of low-budget, non-profit theaters. His characters more often than not appear in vehicles in which a group, rather than a central character, holds the stage.

Nor is the playwright above experimenting with new theatrical forms. He has authored dramas like The Comeback, The Golden Fleece, and Overtime in which classical and contemporary figures appear in one act plays. In Sweet Sue, different actors play the same characters, and Scenes from American Life boasts 140 different characters. One of the two female characters in The Fourth Wall is out to change the world for the better, and there is a strong egalitarian thrust in much of Gurney’s work. One wonders whether an internal struggle within the playwright over values once instilled in him when younger is an overriding theme in his dramas.

When lights go out, electricians are summoned; plumbers are called when pipes burst in winter. But what do you do if you suddenly realize that despite your best intentions to get on with your life, you find you’re actually in a play, then what? Gurney’s The Fourth Wall is about such a predicament.   

In the play, Roger, a married man (played innocently, but with mounting bewilderment by Jonathan Ross), finds himself in just such a situation. In desperation, he puts a call through to the only kind of consultant he imagines can fix his problem: a professor of drama at the local college, Floyd (played with unremitting intrusiveness by Glenn R. Couture). No wonder. Gurney’s plays are peopled by more professors than you find in the work of any other American dramatist.

Of course, adding another character to a plot inevitably muddles, not relieves, Roger’s problem. He should know, because the professor wasn’t the only one who complicates things. Before Floyd’s melodramatic arrival on the scene, Roger invited a sultry, albeit snooty woman, Julia (played alluringly, and with a decided edge by LuAnn Leonard), to help him out.

Julia develops romantic designs on Roger—a scenario she realizes is only another part of the domestic drama unfolding in their play. She advises Roger that his wife, Peggy (played with her usual aptitude for focus and realism by Beth Bonnabeau) is quite bonkers. She has rearranged all the furniture in the living room to face a bare fourth wall, suggesting that everything in the room is nothing less than a prop for a stage play.
Julia knows that “the fourth wall,”—as theater critics from Diderot to Stanislavsky to Vincent Canby well know—is the “invisible screen that forever separates the audience from the stage.” This means that Peggy is up to something weird. (She is also not above some Bush-bashing in her fantasies about a better world, sentiments we sense are not part of Peggy’s script, and may be Gurney’s also.)

Julia suggests that Roger call 976-NUTS to have Peggy put away, but her advice has an ulterior motive. Getting her out of the picture leaves Julia free to pursue Roger in the sudden passion for him that is also another scene in their play.

The interactions among the four characters unfold in increasingly zany ways, and it’s never clear how much of what goes on springs from their unscripted lives, or from roles dictated by the play they seem to be in. It makes for some pretty confusing, although funny, moments.

The humor is additionally spruced up by the fact that the play can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is a straight show or a musical. When alone, each of the four characters seems drawn to a piano determined to get into the action, as if it had a mind of its own. The result is that each of them, after playing but one note on the keyboard, break out into Cole Porter song-and-dance numbers accompanied by the upright. The effect is a part delightful, part silly, addition to the goings-on.

At the end of The Fourth Wall, all four characters manage to resolve their conflicts, but not without two of them staging the only thing suitable for the end of a play: another Cole Porter number.

Director Sonnie Osborne has her performers doing their best to pump up the hilarity in Mr. Couture’s handsomely executed set. Scott Wyshynski’s and Richard Pettibone’s Lighting and Sound Design was accomplished, while the piano accompaniment of Charles Smith and Choreography of Bradford Blake added lovely touches to the ongoing action.

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