'Fourth Wall,' A Departure For Its Playwright, Still Handled Well By TheatreWorks New Milford
NEW MILFORD — A.R.Gurney, chronicler of the decline of the American WASP, probably best known for the frequently produced Love Letters and the man-woman-dog love triangle Sylvia, is probably the most accessible and likeable play-writing today. From The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour to Scenes From American Life and numerous others, I have never seen a Gurney play I didn't really, really enjoy.
The Fourth Wall, a 90-minute no-intermission work with music by Cole Porter, now on New Milford's TheatreWorks, is a departure from, Gurney's usual territory. This is not to say I didn't like it, but rather than consist of actors imitating real people, this is a play in vhich real people begin to imitate actors. And part of the fun this time lies in catching the dramatic references and genres clamoring to be recognized.
The term "The Fourth Wall" refers to the invisible barrier that exists between the performers on stage and the audience watching them. After all, the conceit of theater is that the events on stage are actually taking place in a closed room. When the curtain goes up, it is only our ability to see through that "wall" that allows us to hear the words and witness the events taking place.
Playing on this idea, Gurney introduces Peggy and Roger, a middle-aged couple on the verge of the kind of mid-life crisis Gurney characters often find themselves in, as they realize that the institutions that make up their' lives are no longer satisfying or sustaining. This time, however Peggy has dealt with her unhappiness by aggressively redecorating her living room by moving all the furniture around to face an outward "fourth wall" (we, the audience).
Worrying that his wife is having a breakdown, Roger sends for his old friend Julia, to get her opinion on things. Julia loves 'the arrangement. An overly dramatic personality to begin with, she begins to refer to her conversations as "scenes" and tries to figure out the plot of what is going on. Like Pirandello's Six Characters they are searching for an author to make a story out of them.
Craig, a local college theater professor, shows up and starts to direct the action. Conversations segue into various theatrical styles and issues. From Shaw to Shakespeare, Wilde to Stoppard, crime thriller to bedroom farce, Peggy searches for a more meaningful existence, with more important things to talk about in cleverer and more articulate language.
Roger tries frantically to rise beyond the limits of his persona as a homey hardware salesman, in order to keep up with the woman he loves, and to go along with the "fourth wall" conceit.
Best of all, a berserk player-piano in the corner produces spontaneous mechanical outbursts of Cole Porter songs, which leads all four of them to break out in song and dance, as the play slips into musical genre.
Under Sonnie Osborne's experienced guiding hand, the cast of four gives this play a lovely ride. Beth Bonnabeau is assertively delightful as Peggy, while Jonathan Ross is properly confused and anxious as her befuddled husband. LuAnn Leonard is sweepingly sure of herself as Julia, and Glenn R. Couture is very funny as Craig.
Gurney is celebrating his love of the theater here, and in this clever, original, light-hearted work, he calls on the audience's familiarity, not with the world of the WASP, but with plays and movies that make life larger than it. usually is. It makes for a fun evening for informed and sophisticated audiences.