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'All the World's a Stage' TheatreWorks Brilliantly 'Redecorates', With 'The Fourth Wall'

By Jamie Ferris, Houastonic Times


Anyone familiar with theater knows of the "fourth wall," that imaginary barrier at the front of the stage through which viewers watch the onstage action. It is the boundary between reality and the imagined world of the playwright, the line between the fictional world and the audience. So what happens when this boundary is broken?

Director Sonnie Osborne and a talented cast of four explore this conundrum at TheatreWorks New Milford with its outstanding production of Roxbury playwright A.R. Gurney's "the Fourth Wall." On the surface, the show is an unconventional, daffy, off-beat comedy" about redecorating when, in fact, it is a wittily written exploration of the nature of dramatic form that raises questions about American theater and the modern world in which we live.

Long known for poking fun at the American upper middle class experience, Mr. Gurney knows how to make his audience laugh out loud, while also offering thought-provoking fodder for the audience to chew on. "The Fourth Wall" is sophisticated, thought-provoking, and downright funny, sprinkled with timely political metaphor, a hint of melodrama and an ample dose of ridiculousness.

The plot revolves around a Buffalo, N.Y., couple in the midst of a minor crisis. Peggy (Beth Bonnabeau), an ordinary, upper-middle-class housewife who usually has exquisite taste, decides to radically redecorate her living room as if it were a stage set, turning all of the furniture to face the large blank fourth wall. It's just not the bizarre decorating choice that has Peggy's husband, Roger, (Jonathan Ross), concerned, however. Not only does the room rearrangement have a strange effect on the way the couple behaves, but Peggy actually believes there are people, perhaps even a better more exciting world, waiting for her just beyond that wall.

Baffled and unable to cope with Peggy's inexplicable impulse, Roger calls on an old friend, Julia (LuAnn Leonard), a dramatic Manhattanite, for her opinion. She, too, begins to refer to conversations as scenes, and is determined to sew her own threads into the plot. If that were not, enough craziness, Roger enlists snobbish theater professor Floyd (Glenn R. Couture) from a local community college to help with proper "direction." As characters enter the room, each suddenly behaves as if he or she were acting in a play—from clichéd dialogue, right on down to stage champagne. The action of the play and subsequent banter spirals wildly as characters try to discover the genre of play in which they are starring. Is it a bedroom farce, a crime thriller, political satire, existential drama or an absurd comedy?

Further enhancing the blend of realism and illusion is a player piano that, with the slightest tickle of the ivories, plays a Cole Porter song—it only plays Cole Porter, of course—allowing each character to burst into a song that offers further social commentary and comedy.

While the plot sounds contrived and convoluted, it is quite the opposite. It is an astute exploration of modern theater and of our place in the world, juxtaposing reality and illusion prompted by midlife angst—and the disillusionment of a recently elected George W. Bush. "The Fourth Wall" is an energetic production written by one of theater's craftiest pros, and is directed by TheatreWorks veteran Sonnie Osborne. She masterfully chose four splendid actors, each of them in tune with the silliness of this wonderful farce.

The show rides equally on the shoulders of the entire cast, but if the proper actress had been not cast for the role of Peggy, the production could have been as flat as stage champagne. Fortunately, Beth Bonnabeau, fresh off her TheatreWorks directorial debut last season, is back in the spotlight and hasn't missed a beat. Her dramatic and comedic talents have shone brilliantly on the TheatreWorks stage many times, but her performance in "The Fourth Wall" is beautifully balanced, from Peggy's mad ravings about George W. Bush and her on-target physical comedy, to her illuminating and impassioned monologues. She is a pleasure to watch—and a wonderful songstress to boot.

The ying to Peggy's yang is Roger, played magnificently by Jonathan Ross, who has appeared in more than 25 TheatreWorks productions, his last the hysterical turn as Victor Fleming in last season's irresistibly nutty production of "Moonlight and Magnolias." Mr. Ross is delightful as Peggy's befuddled and bewildered husband, desperate to solve her unexplainable problem, while finding some confusion on the sidelines. He delivers a bit of Shakespeare quite nicely, too.

A newcomer to the Theatre Works stage, LuAnn Leonard, cast as Julia, is no stranger to theater. This veteran of musical theater—on Broadway and off—is a welcome addition to this seasoned cast. Ms. Leonard keeps the conversational balls bouncing throughout the production adding just the right amount of panache to the ever-dramatic Julia without overdoing it. To not mention her beautiful singing voice would be a sin. TheatreWorks audiences can only hope she will grace the TheatreWorks stage more often with her talents.

Rounding out the cast is Floyd, portrayed by the always hilarious Glenn R. Couture, who shared his comedic talents on the TheatreWorks stage in last season's "Moonlight and Magnolias" and "Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge." Mr. Couture has an uncanny flair for comedy, and keeps the laughs coming as the snobbish and confident Professor Floyd Lesser (a clever gag that keeps on giving). He has undeniable chemistry with Ms. Bonnabeau, and "directs" Peggy and her "ensemble cast" through the show.

Kudos also go to Mr. Couture for his richly exquisite set design, which emphasizes every last detail, right down to the magazines—Stage magazine, anyone?—upon the coffee table.

While "The Fourth Wall" may not be as brilliant as Mr. Gurney's "Sylvia," or as beloved as "Love Letters," it is an uproarious evening of fun on the boards. It is, as TheatreWorks president Richard Pettibone noted, Mr. Gurney's "love letter to theater," one that offers plenty of laughs and some food for thought.

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