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A CurtainUp Review
The Fourth Wall
Peggy must feel there's something about contemporary American life which makes her feel she is performing a useless role in a second-rate comedy of manner
---Julia, commenting on her friend's re-decorating scheme that turns the open proscenium into what in theatrical terms is the "fourth wall " that separates actors from audiences.
Sandy Duncan and David Pittu
Sandy Duncan and David Pittu (Photo: James Leynse)
A. R. Gurney has long been gently poking fun at the upper middle class WASP experience with enormous success. Like Neil Simon he knows how to make audiences laugh out loud. He's also adept at constructing plays with economically viable small casts (in the case of his super hit, Love Letters, a cast of two without even the cost of set and costumes) and just enough meaning to lull audience into believing that his modern day drawing room comedies nourish us with ideas as well as entertainment. Some, like The Dining Room do, many are mostly enjoyable flirtations with life's deeper meaning.

The Fourth Wall, which is now making its Off-Broadway debut at Primary Stages, should have Gurney's many admirers and liberals reeling from the recent election wondering why it has been limited to the regional circuit for a decade. The dialogue is chock full of hit-home mots. For a savoir faire flavor there are countless literary allusion. To keep the political references topical the script has been revised so that George W. Bush the younger rather than his dad, now bears the brunt of Gurney's putdown of the current body politic.

Like Sylvia, one of Gurney's more off-beat and much produced creations, The Fourth Wall juxtaposes reality and illusion and is prompted by midlife angst. In this case it's the wife in a long-standing marriage who upsets the marital apple cart. Instead of Sylvia, a dog played by a girl, to drive the plot we now have an oddly redecorated suburban living room serve as a metaphor for boxed-in, unexamined lives. To help him cope with the fallout from this new decor, the husband (Charles Kimbrough) enlists the help of two outsiders (Susan Sullivan and David Pittu), thus adding two more voices for the authorial insights into our declining ability to interact honestly with each other not to mention the declining health of our social and political institutions as reflected by the poor health of the theater.

So, what's so disturbing about Peggy's (Sandy Duncan) redecorating? When you first take your seat, everything looks like a typical well-furnished, quite proper Gurney set -- or any set for a realistic play about the upper middle class. But if you look closely, you'll note that, instead of facing the fireplace, usually the focal point of such rooms, the chairs all face the open proscenium. That proscenium is actually the wall of the title, which has been de-furnished by Peggy (Duncan) in an effort to break through and make contact with the people and world beyond -- in effect making everyone in the room actors, and those people beyond the "fourth wall" the audience. To further enhance the blend of realism and illusion, it turns out that the piano is an automatic player that needs only a tickle of the ivories to burst into a Cole Porter song. Like everything else, that piano is a social comment (in this case on sentimentality) as well as a means for pumping up the comedy by giving every character a turn to do a Porter solo.

If all this sounds like a lot of fun, so it is, especially since the four actors are splendidly in tune with the daffiness of this situation. The pert, petite and seemingly ageless Sandy Duncan easily switches from Peter Pan to a modern day Saint Joan named Peggy. (This puts G.B. Shaw's Joan front and center on two Off-Broadway stages-- the other being a key figure in Lanford Wilson's Book Of Days ). Charles Kimbrough, a veteran of numerous Gurney plays, is delightfully befuddled as Peggy's businessman spouse Roger. David Pittu as Floyd, a drama teacher at the local college brings a hilarious academic perspective to the play's sendup of contemporary theater and theater goers.

Best of all, there's Susan Sullivan as friend Julia, the cynical, self-absorbed New Yorker. She comes on strong and never falters in nailing every laugh with utmost ease. The fact that Gurney has thrown some of the funniest talk her way doesn't hurt. To give just a few examples: Sizing up the meaning of Peggy's wall she declares "Roger, I think we should have a scene together." She explains how one of numerous love affairs ended "when he found Christ" and responds to Roger's's "And you didn't?" with "I didn't even look."

Director David Saint has staged the comedy with considerable flair for keeping the various conversational balls bouncing along. With Gurney tossing so many ideas at that wall, it is inevitable that some land with a thud -- a prime example being Duncan's rather unfunny and tedious speech about what she would do if she could get through to the other side.

All this banter hardly adds up to a subtle political satire or Mr. Gurney's best ever play, but in a season with less to laugh about as one might like -- in and out of the theater -- it is a good-natured entertainment and clearly the work of one of the theater's canniest pros. Thanks to James Youmans' set and David Murin's outfits for the ladies, it's also great to look at.

The Fourth Wall has enough bounce to please Gurney's devoted constituents and win him more than a few new ones.

Fourth Wall
Written by A. R. Gurney
Directed by David Saint
Cast: Sandy Duncan, Charles Kimbrough, David Pittu, Susan Sullivan
Set Design: James Youmans
Costume Design: David Murin
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Christopher J. Bailey
Musical Director: James Valcq
Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Primary Stages, 354 W. 45th St. (8th/ 9th Ave) 212-333-4052,
10/30/02-12/22/02; opens 11/12/02M
Wed - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2:30pm; Sun at 3pm. . -- $45
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/12/02 performance.
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