A.R. Gurney, who died in June 2017, was prolific to the end. Like Verdi, Henry James, and Philip Roth (a recently deceased contemporary of Gurney’s), this urbane playwright exercised robust creative powers far beyond customary retirement age. Judging by the number of high-profile revivals since his death (most notably last season’s superb Off-Broadway production of Later Life), Gurney’s wit and insight are still integral to American drama.
Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), an estimable company with a cumbersome name, is currently reviving Gurney’s The Fourth Wall. Written in the 1990s, The Fourth Wall was a wacky, featherweight comedy with an abundance of inside-theater references, but after Sept. 11, Gurney revised the script, interpolating a political message that sits awkwardly in the gently absurdist material around it. That revision is the script TBTB is performing.
When the curtain rises, Roger (Nicholas Viselli) is showing Julia (Pamela Sabaugh), a self-consciously sophisticated Manhattanite, how his wife, Peggy (Ann Marie Morelli), has redecorated the living room of their home in suburban Buffalo. Alarmed by the eccentricity of Peggy’s design, Roger has summoned Julia to render a reality check.
Julia understands Roger’s dismay. Peggy has angled the sofa and all the room’s chairs toward one wall. Everyone sitting in this arrangement is forced to speak in a single direction, like actors in an old-fashioned drawing-room comedy. The wall toward which the furnishings are turned is completely unadorned (or so we’re told). That blank wall reminds Roger and Julia of the invisible “fourth” wall of a proscenium theater’s stage set. It’s also, of course, the imaginary boundary through which the audience observes Roger and Julia. It’s perplexing that director Christopher Burris and Bert Scott, the scenic and lighting designer, have placed this production on a stage with the audience on three sides and a mirrored backdrop.
When Peggy arrives, she explains that the new décor is her response to President George W. Bush, whom she regards “as uninformed, inarticulate, and inexperienced in the larger world.” Peggy believes the actions of an incompetent federal administration are doing harm—possibly irreparable—to the world’s social fabric. She fears that she and Roger are becoming as desensitized to the welfare of humankind as the President and his Washington cronies.
The world, says Peggy, “is small enough now so that we can no longer ignore the suffering of our brothers and sisters in humanity, any more than we could ignore suffering in our immediate family.” She is convinced that “we have a human obligation to stop embellishing our own lives long enough to help unfortunate people elsewhere.... ”
In due course, Floyd (Stephen Drabicki), a drama professor at a local college, joins the discussion. He has also been invited to analyze the transformation of living room to proscenium stage set. Floyd is impressed to hear Peggy talk about breaking through the fourth wall, connecting with whatever “audience” is beyond it and, ultimately, taking her humanitarian crusade to Washington, D.C. He declares her a modern St. Joan and dubs her aspirations the start of a social movement that may change the world.
TBTB, which will observe its fortieth anniversary next year, produces varied plays with casts that include both “able-bodied actors” and actors with physical impairments. The company’s mission, as stated in press materials, “is to change the image of people with disabilities from one of dependence to independence, to fight stereotypes and misperceptions associated with disability, and to show how vibrant, fluid, and exuberant the work of artists with disabilities can be.” Their Fourth Wall is not as effective as recent productions of The Healing and The Artificial Jungle.
Gurney, whose white Anglo-Saxon characters spar in fizzy, witty dialogue, also has an appetite for innovation. The Fourth Wall, with its absurdist leanings, reflects his fondness for the experimental spirits of Beckett and Pirandello.
In the right hands, The Fourth Wall may muster more trenchant moments than this production; but here Gurney’s experimentation doesn’t pay off. Part of the problem lies with the writer, whose slender conceit is only mildly amusing and hasn’t been fully integrated with his political message. To Gurney’s credit, though, the script includes a handful of Cole Porter songs that should have been useful for Burris and his actors in establishing tone and style for the production.
Borrowing a phrase from a well-known Porter lyric, Gurney’s lightly political comedy ought to be “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.” But the well-meaning actors lack the light touch called for by the arch dialogue. Instead of bubbling like Prosecco, the production is sodden as milk toast.
The Fourth Wall, presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, plays through June 23 at the Jeffery and Paula Gural Theatre @ A.R.T./NY Theatres (503 W. 53rd, between 10th and 11th Avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For information and tickets, call (212) 243-4337 or visit ovationtix.com.