By A.R. Gurney; Directed by Christopher Burris
Produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 6.22.18
A.R.T./N.Y. Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street
by Asya Danilova on 6.10.18
Ann Marie Morelli and Stephen Drabicki in The Fourth Wall. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: The Fourth Wall pushes the theatricality of everyday life to total absurdity in order to break through political barriers.
Every time I enter a theatre and see a set recreating a living room I cringe a little: how many more will I see this season! That's why I was so excited to see The Fourth Wall by A.R. Gurney, a play that mocks the tired setting while striving to address the political anxieties of 2002 (the play was first written in 1991, but this is the version Gurney re-wrote in 2002). A living room drama turned inside out, this meta-theatrical comedy, produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, proves to be more relevant than ever.
Nervous husband Roger (Nicholas Viselli) summons his friend Julia (Pamela Sabaugh) to the Buffalo suburbs; he's concerned for his wife, Peggy (Ann Marie Morelli). Not only has Peggy recently become increasingly politically aware and suspicious of strangers, she's also re-decorated the living room in a peculiar way. All the furniture faces a blank wall, resembling a theatrical set, which forces everybody who enters the room to act as though they are in front of an audience. Roger finds it difficult to relax in such a setting. The fact that the alcohol in the bar is replaced with “stage” drinks (ginger ale instead of champagne) doesn’t help.
Roger also calls on a local university drama professor, Floyd (Stephen Drabicki). Unable to resist the spell of the room, the four characters decide to go along with it and play the story out. The only problem is that Julia wants to make it a soap opera with love triangles and long-lost children, while Floyd attempts to elevate the plot to the status of a new Great American Drama. For Julia, Peggy is a crazy wife, the obstacle to a newly sparked passion. Floyd sees Peggy as a possible political martyr, the Joan of Arc of our times.
Despite the amusement to be mined from sarcastic theatrical references and clever political jokes, The Fourth Wall is a little flimsy. The actors seem to still be in the process of finding the right angle on their characters, but the outlines are clear enough to see where director Christopher Burris is headed. Pierrot-like Roger, melodramatic Julia and boyish Floyd seem to be inspired by commedia dell'arte. The overly theatrical manner in which Viselli, Sabaugh and Drabicki present their characters is funny, if strained at times. The absurdist undertone is very compelling but I wished it were cranked up even more.
Peggy, the one who is presumably mad as a result of anti-Bush inclinations, might be the only sane person onstage. Ann Marie Morelli plays her in a realistic and sympathetic manner, quiet but passionate. Peggy’s methods come across as odd, but her intentions are healthy. A political activist who comes from privilege, she struggles to connect with the people "on the other side of the wall." In Peggy's mind, orienting the furniture to face the (fourth) wall might help her confront the barrier separating people of different cultural and economic backgrounds.
At times, Peggy wonders if there truly are people behind the wall. As an affirmative answer, a blue light illuminates the audience every time Peggy enters. It feels nice to be included in the play, but it doesn’t make up for the architecture of Paula Gural Theatre, which is unsuitable for this production. The play is performed as if on a traditional proscenium, with most of the scenes oriented towards the front. So those who are seated on the sides are at disadvantage. The mirrored back wall of the set is puzzling too. Does it speak of the dualism of theater and life? Is it there to reflect the audience and to include us in the setting? Whatever the idea might be, the effect is rather distracting in practice.
Despite a few setbacks, The Fourth Wall is a gratifying evening of theatre, especially for those who, like myself, are allergic to white-upper-middle-class living room dramas. It is especially appropriate that Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a company dedicated to advancing actors with disabilities, is behind this production. Seeing TBTB smashing the perception of disability on stage—by casting actors with disabilities in roles not specifically written as such—is truly inspiring.
(The Fourth Wall plays at the A.R.T./N.Y. Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, through June 23, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7, Thursdays and Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 3 and 8, and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $50 and are available at tbtb.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
The Fourth Wall is by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Christopher Burris. Set and Lighting Design by Bert Scott. Sound Design by Andy Evan Cohan. Costumes by Courtney E. Butt. Stage Management by Michal V. Mendelson.
The cast is Stephen Drabicki, Ann Marie Morelli, Pamela Sabaugh, and Nicholas Viselli.