(l to r) Pamela Sabaugh, Stephen Drabicki and Nicholas Viselli in TBTB’s ‘The Fourth Wall.’
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
There’s a pleasant irony in the fact that A.R. Gurney’s comedy The Fourth Wall—first done at the Westport Country Playhouse in 1992 and given its Off-Broadway premiere in 2002—is being revived by Theater Breaking Through Barriers. TBTB, founded in 1979, has been smashing conventions since 1979 by casting disabled actors in roles generally reserved for the able-bodied.
Gurney’s play is a metatheatrical satire on theatrical conventions, especially the “fourth wall.” That, of course, is the invisible barrier that allows audiences to peer through it into the lives of dramatic characters as if into another world whose inhabitants are unaware we’re out there watching. As far back as ancient Greek comedy, theatrical performances have, to one degree or another, acknowledged the audience’s presence. However, the convention always has required artificial devices to pretend we’re not there at all.
In such cases, when an actor acknowledges our presence, we call it “breaking the fourth wall,” as in these snippets from a couple of my reviews: “Then the fog lifts and, apart from a sprinkling of fourth-wall-breaking dialogue”; “so assured is Ms. Bayardelle of her vocals that in one number, . . . she actually breaks character along with the fourth wall to encourage the audience to clap!” and so on.
Gurney plays with the idea in terms of typical domestic comedies (or TV sitcoms) set in a living room, where all the furniture faces the audience, including a sofa set in the middle. His premise is that the room we see, in a home near Buffalo, NY, has been redesigned by its owner, Peggy (Ann Marie Morelli), to resemble a stage set facing an empty wall in what would be the downstage position. She longs to reach out to those who might be on its other side, where she could meet sexually and ethnically diverse people. Her husband, Roger (Nicholas Viselli), though, is unhappy with the arrangement, which forces people in the room to behave as if they’re acting in a play.
Roger has invited his and Peggy’s friend, Julia (Pamela Sabaugh), to help him deal with the dilemma. Julia, played here as a sex-hungry vamp in tight, black dress, thinks Peggy is sufficiently off the rails to warrant calling “976-NUTS” to have her put away, thus opening the possibility for Roger and Julia to get it on.
Things get a bit loopier when a persnickety theater academic named Floyd (Stephen Drabicki) is called on to advise. Floyd not only has a purposely contrived, Importance of Being Earnest-type relationship with Julia, but also furthers Peggy’s goals by inspiring her to think of herself as Shaw’s St. Joan and to smash through that restrictive fourth wall.
Threaded throughout are numerous theatrical references, dated potshots at President George W. Bush (small potatoes in the age of Trump), and liberal comments on conservative issues. Nor can we ignore a handful of mostly lesser-known Cole Porter songs accompanied by a player piano, with the generally unmusical cast eventually joining in on “What Say? Let’s Be Buddies.”
Gurney uses the characters and developments to spoof the artistic conventions playwrights and actors have to deal with, and, for a time, the play’s stream of satiric tropes and theatrical references get some laughs. Well written and funny as it often is, the material loses steam before its intermissionless hour and 40 minutes are up and that eponymous wall is breached so Peggy can get to Washington and teach Bush “to think outside of the box.”
Bert Scott’s living room set (for which he also did the lighting) is elegantly done, with a mirrored rear wall and ceiling molding overhead. But Gurney’s critique of the scenic fourth wall (as opposed to it as an imaginary barrier even in exteriors) is surely intended for a proscenium arrangement, not Scott’s three-quarters round configuration, which implies fifth and sixth walls at either side.
The uneven acting quartet works hard under Christopher Burris’s brisk direction to keep Gurney’s ball in the air. The wheelchair-bound Morelli, who has MS, is a bit too soft-voiced but plays Peggy with determination; Drabicki, who has a hearing disability, gives the professorial Floyd a sense of intellectual entitlement; and the able-bodied Viselli, TBTB’s producing artistic director (and Morelli’s spouse), competently reflects Roger’s frustrations. Most vivid is the self-dramatizing, femme fatale Julia, portrayed by the vision-impaired Sabaugh.
The Fourth Wall is a passable light comedy, given particular interest by its unique casting. Still, when those Porter songs are sung, some might wish a real fourth wall was available.
The Fourth Wall
A.R.T./New York Theatres
Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre
502 W. 53rd St., NYC
Through June 23
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com), Theater Pizzazz (http://theaterpizzazz.com/category/theater-reviews/), Theater Life (http://theaterlife.com/).