Review: ‘The Fourth Wall’ at A.R.T./NY Theatres

By Jonathan Spira on 22 June 2018
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A.R. Gurney is know for witty plays such as “The Dining Room” and “The Cocktail Hour,” which explore upper-class WASP life in contemporary America. “The Fourth Wall,” set in a similar household, is the study of a quartet of characters who wrestle with one person’s obsession with the fourth wall in a room.

First staged in 1992, “The Fourth Wall” is being produced, in an off-Broadway revival, by the Theater Breaking Through Barriers, which works with able-bodied actors and actresses as well as those with disabilities.

In the play, Peggy (Ann Marie Morelli), a housewife in 2000s Buffalo (Mr. Gurney’s birthplace and the target of much of his satire), has redecorated the living room so that the focus of the room is a blank fourth wall. All of the furniture is arranged so that anyone entering the room focuses on the wall and begins to act as if they were in a play. As a footnote, Peggy also thinks that President George W. Bush, among others, is out to get her. Naturally, her husband, Roger (Nicholas Viselli), is concerned so he asks long-time friend Julia (Pamela Sabaugh) to visit from Manhattan. Roger hedges his bets and asks a local drama professor, Floyd (Stephen Drabick), to visit as well.

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There’s a fifth character as well, a Yamaha player piano that is programmed to only play Cole Porter tunes, and has the important function of allowing each of the characters to burst out in song.

The title is a nod to what, in theater parlance, means the audience and the set, a living room, seems to mock the many more conventional plays that have similar sets.

Mr. Gurney covers a lot of ground and drops many names in the course of the 100-minute exercise (there is no intermission, although there ought to have been one if merely for audience comfort) including Agamemnon, Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Neil Simon, and Ibsen (with a sly reference to “A Doll’s House”). Peggy, Floyd the professor decides, is St. Joan although I found her to be more like Ibsen’s Nora at the end.

Peggy frets that her life is as artificial as a sitcom and longs to play a more meaningful role in the real world, wishing to travel to Washington, D.C. to tell the president “exactly what I used to tell my children: Share your toys, cooperate with others and learn to get along with people who are different,” words that resonated greatly with the 2018 audience.

Unfortunately, “The Fourth Wall” stalls at multiple points and fails to evoke the excitement and keep hold of the audience’s attention that Gurney maintained in “The Dining Room” and “The Cocktail Hour.”

THE DETAILS

The Fourth Wall
The Jeffrey & Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./NY Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
www.tbtb.org

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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