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The Fourth Wall

Sandy Duncan and David Pittu
in The Fourth Wall
(Photo: © James Leysne)
With age can come wisdom, but with age can also come irrelevance. What A. R. Gurney demonstrates in his new play The Fourth Wall is that, if you go back far enough to classical Greek definitions of comedy, you can find both wisdom and up-to-the-minute relevance, with a good measure of hilarity as well.

Starring Sandy Duncan, Charles Kimbrough, Susan Sullivan, and David Pittu, The Fourth Wall charmingly reclaims the tradition of Aristophanes' Old Comedy, as a recent New York Times essay by Gurney explained. Old Comedy was political, satiric, and featured an innocent carrying a message for the audience and the other characters, usually very much of-the-moment. New Comedy was championed a century later by Menander and represented the domestic comedy of manners -- unthreatening, apolitical bedroom farce, the type that became pre-eminent in Western culture.

In Gurney's hybrid, which is as much a comment on theater as on life, the two forms contend with each other bluntly in ways that are funny, farcical, and highly accessible. The show opens in the living room of Peggy and Roger (Duncan and Kimbrough); the scenic design emphasizes the antfarm-like quality of the scene, seeming to push the actors toward the missing fourth wall that converts what we see from a living room to a stage set. The characters we meet first, Roger and his New York friend Julia (Sullivan), engage in a discussion of Peggy's distressing decorative choice to make one wall virtual. The married couple's life is being overtaken by an ever-increasing staginess; as Roger complains, "I constantly feel pressure to come up with witty dialogue!"

Called upon to offer consultation on the problem is Julia, whose acerbic mien is deliciously embodied by Sullivan, known to many from her television work on Dharma & Greg and elsewhere. As she attempts to diagnose the situation -- her qualification being her status as a friend and as a New Yorker, which seems to mean that she's an expert on intrigue -- the meta-dramatic references come fast and furious. In response to Julia's flat statement of distaste for the beverage she has been served, Roger groans: "That's because it's stage champagne!"

Romantic tension quickly develops between these two, providing a New Comedy plotline for the jaded Julia, who has begun to despair of seeing any complications arise to justify the transparence of the wall that every piece of furniture faces. In one riotous scene, while Roger sees to his wife, Julia is left alone in the room and wonders aloud what kind of "silly stage business" she will employ to preoccupy herself for the duration. Her hilarious futzing with her hair and a magazine is capped by the introduction of the room's grand player-piano, accompanying her in the first of several Cole Porter tunes sung by various cast members to punctuate the action.

The whole show pokes fun at theater, an increasingly sure-fire ticket to success when spoofs such as Urinetown and The Producers are drawing big crowds. As Gurney's characters engage in a Pirandellian search for their plot, Duncan's character Peggy provides an Old Comedy-style naïveté; her character experiences a spiritual and moral crisis that contains what Julia coolly calls "the jeopardy element." Bounding from meetings of groups dedicated to one liberal cause or another, Peggy is flipped off by someone in a black SUV with a Bush/Cheney sticker on it and receives a threatening phone call from someone whose husky voice is quickly attributed to a member of the ruling dynasty. "I sense a twist I'm unprepared for," Julia remarks.

Sandy Duncan and Susan Sullivan
in The Fourth Wall
Peggy is finally confronted by an emboldened Roger to talk about her strange behavior. She describes her hope that, in breaking down the fourth wall of her living room, she might reach an audience that is open-minded, diverse, and longing for connection; though African-American onlookers may prefer "watching August Wilson," she hopes that they will also participate. Her husband tries to calm and placate her but is frustrated in the attempt. Finally, Peggy has a vision of doing Something Bigger with her boring, suburban life and decides to set off for Washington in order to show George W. Bush what he should have learned in kindergarten: how to play nicely with others, share, and not be a bully.

The play's left-of-the-aisle political points are made comically, with the largely Democratic bent of theater audiences humorously referenced as well. In a truly wacky turn of events, Roger, aware of the particularly odd nature of Peggy's neurosis, resolves to call in an expert -- not a psychiatrist but a local drama professor. The prof is able to rush right over because he is an academic and "has nothing else to do." Upon his arrival, he gives Roger and Julia a quick lesson in modern and ancient drama. This portion of the show drags somewhat but still registers more laughs per minute than most plays.

Soon, Dr. Floyd Lesser, a semi-adolescent pedagogue in his mid-thirties who wears hi-tops with a sports jacket, starts to believe in the inherent drama of Peggy's vision and compares her to Ibsen's Nora and Shaw's Saint Joan. Falling for Peggy, who has verbally assailed the empty values of commercial capitalism, he fawningly exclaims: "You'd attack our consumer society even as we're in a death struggle with Islamic terrorism!"

Dr. Lesser's hilarious and deluded deconstructions of theater's intersection with life bring the play to its ludicrous and delightful climax, with a few red herrings thrown in for subplot. The standout performance is that of Susan Sullivan as Julia -- a marvel of comic timing -- with the two men close behind her. Duncan comes off more like Peter Pan than the role calls for, though Peggy's cheerfulness is of the forever-young variety. The play is antically well-directed by David Saint, and James Youmans's set is even remarkable for what isn't there.

As a framework for a romp through satiric forms, the story of an over-educated, bourgeois wife whose anxiety over the world's troubles leads her to seek escape from her boxed-in existence echoes not so much classical drama as it does The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, a recent Broadway hit. To judge by the audience's buoyant reaction, The Fourth Wall may well have a chance to echo the success of Charles Busch's play.