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'Fourth Wall' serves as spoof of theater, politics

By Chesley Plemmons, The News Times

2009-05-07

So what do playwrights do in their spare time? If Roxbury's A.R. Gurney is a prime example, they write more plays. Not plays necessarily meant for Broadway, but works in which the playwright (Gurney) can have fun using his skills to poke fun at the hand that feeds him (theater) as well as one of his favorite targets (George W. Bush and his administration).

Gurney's "The Fourth Wall," currently on stage at TheatreWorks in New Milford, is a kissing cousin of the playwright's "A Light Lunch," which I reviewed earlier this year at off-Broadway's Flea Theatre. In "Lunch," a high-powered political operative spars with a high-powered literary agent over the rights to a new play by someone named "Gurney" that may or may not be highly critical of Bush and his policies. Ninety minutes in length -- with no intermission -- "Lunch" made some affectionate jokes about playwrights and the business of theater, as well as a broadside attack on Bush.

"Fourth Wall" is pretty similar, also 90 minutes, except this time the scene is a suburban home instead of a smart New York bistro. The protagonist here is a woman possessed by unexplained forces to turn her living room into a stage set where Bush can be taken over the coals as part of an impromptu stage drama. The concept is a bit metaphysical but also a bit contrived.

In the setting of Buffalo, N.Y., Roger (Jonathan Ross) has invited Julia (LuAnn Leonard), an old friend -- and flame -- to take a look at the living room Advertisement where his wife Peggy (Beth Bonnabeau) has left one wall bare as a bone -- the fourth wall, which is the illusionary wall between a play and the audience. Peggy believes that beyond her fourth wall is the real world and people who need to know the truth about things -- in particular the sinister activities of President Bush and his entourage. Clearly this is amusing political fodder for anti-Bush audience members, but as a theatrical device it wears thin quickly.

The snobby Julia is not only a fish out of water in upstate New York, but is also fairly liberal with her favors -- particularly with Roger -- and so a familiar romantic triangle is introduced as well.

Peggy's delusions and Roger and Julia's steamy relationship are interrupted by the arrival of Floyd (Glenn R. Couture), a fey theater professor from a local university who takes charge of the evening like a neighborhood Elia Kazan.

Gurney makes some amusing points about theater and some very strong ones about the absurdities of Bush and his inner circle. These political jabs, however, seem dated even though we're only a few months into a new administration, proving once again that political humor is truly timely.

Gurney falls back on some familiar theatrical tricks as well -- introducing a player piano that offers up one Cole Porter song after another with the cast joining in as if swept up into a movie musical.

The performances are full of pizzazz with Bonnabeau's dizzy housewife and Couture's gay theater maven providing the most laughs. Ross' bewildered husband is just enough out of the "theatrical" loop to be funny, and Leonard's smart New Yorker is as self-centered and opinionated as the familiar stereotype. She did seem to be afraid to let go of her waist, keeping her hand firmly planted there for most of the evening.

Couture was also responsible for the smart-looking set and Brad Blake lent a hand with bits of choreography that the characters often seemed compelled to succumb to. The unseen Charles Smith gets credit for the piano accompaniment, which made one pine for more music and fewer plot tricks.

Sonnie Osborne is the director and she's done a fine job in keeping her wacky characters from looking totally foolish and for stealthily revealing the playwright's political agenda. Behind Gurney's playful fa├žade there are some serious issues, but like most parlor tricks, which this is, the conceit constantly outshines the content.

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