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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Updated and Shorter Version of
A.R. Gurney's The Fourth Wall
at TheatreWorks

Also see Richard's reviews of Santaland Diaries

TheatreWorks is presenting the west coast premiere of A.R. Gurney's revised satire The Fourth Wall at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. I saw the original two act production in 1994 at the Pasadena Playhouse. The play was written during the administration of the first President Bush. It not only took aim at his politics but at the colorless American theatre background as well. That production contained the usual witty middle class sophisticated dialogue that has made the playwright famous. I have always thought of this playwright as the liberal WASP's answer to Neil Simon.

Mr. Gurney decided to update and shorten the play and set his sights on the current Bush administration. The one act play, which looks like a "Reader's Digest" version of the original, opened at Primary Stages in New York last year to good reviews. The New Yorker said "the evening is debonair, thought-provoking and funny." The New York Times called it "clever, sophisticated and deliciously devious." Once again, the play knocks down the boundaries between the actor and the audience to tell the tale of a stressed out middle aged wife who rebels against the smugness of her friends, marriage, government and even her furniture, which is all facing the audience.

The Fourth Wall takes place somewhere in a suburb near New York City during the administration of George W. Bush, who gets his share of criticism. All of the action takes place in a typical upper middle class living room that looks like a set out of a Noel Coward drawing room comedy. This elegant room has a piano that plays Cole Porter songs when you just hit it (the characters break out in Porter melodies when the piano plays). The room contains obviously fake flowers, a fake fireplace, and a bar full of theater "liquor," which is commented on by the actors. There is a fourth wall which "separates the actors from the audience" and this is a blank space (of course it is).

The Fourth Wall
Kimberly King, Jackson Davis, Suzanne Grodner and Danny Scheie
Peggy (Kimberly King) is the frustrated housewife whose children have left the roost and who feels boxed in by life. She has changed her conservative living room to resemble a theatrical stage and leaves one wall blank. She wants to break through that fourth wall (a theatrical term meaning an actor has shown awareness for the audience through an imaginary wall that separates the two) because she believes there is something beyond that space. Husband Roger (Jackson Davis) is concerned about his wife's unconventional behavior so he calls in oversexed New York social climber and home decorator Julia (Suzanne Grodner) and pompous college drama professor Floyd (Danny Scheie) to help him make sense of all this.

During the next 75 minutes, every cliché in the world of theater is played, including booming voices, worsening gestures, overacting behavior, and typical exit lines. This talented group has the difficult task of being actors playing people who think they are actors in a play. As Julia says when she enters the room the first time, "This room makes you feel as if you are acting in a play," and Roger in conversation says, "why am I talking in a stagy sort of way, I can't think why." Floyd is egotistical reminding me of several film directors I have known. He has great lines when Peggy breaks the fourth wall such as, "She's gone beyond Shaw! She broke the fourth wall."

A. R. Gurney's dialogue is sparking, intellectual, chatting and very sophisticated.. It helps if you are an aficionado of the theatre since many lines refer to classic plays, including a line from the seldom heard Agamemnon. One of the characters says, "what do we do for a plot?" as the farce continues while another relates that "the British do this sort of play much better then the Americans."

George W. Bush gets raked over the coals for his economic package of tax breaks and his "go alone" attitude toward the war in Iraq. Professor Floyd believes Joan of Arc should be revived with Peggy as its star. She in turn wants to break through the fourth wall as says, "I'd go to Washington and tell George Bush the younger exactly what I used to tell my children - share your toys, cooperate with others and learn to get along with people who are different." There is even a scene that is reminiscent of the last scene of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

Jules Aaron's direction is completely deadpan and it works with this knowledgeable cast. Suzanne Grodner (a New York actress who appeared in The Rose Tattoo and Off Broadway's Cakewalk and Death Defying Acts) is delectable with an infectious Tallulah Bankhead laugh. Her Julia is the consummate scene stealer, especially with her sharp dialogue with Roger and Floyd. She has the best comic lines and can't understand "this silly stage business." When left alone on the stage, she performs outlandishly, such as flipping through a magazine or touching up her hair. She even goes to the player piano and does a sizzling arrangement of a Cole Porter torch song.

Kimberly King (James Joyce's The Dead on Broadway) is excellent as the middle aged wife who wants to change the world and become a modern day Joan of Arc without being burned at the stake. Her acting is properly bizarre and has a frantic unpredictability that is admirable. Danny Scheie (talented actor and director with many credits in the Bay Area and at the Pasadena Playhouse) is properly droll as the theater professor who believes all the world is a stage. His dissertation on modern theatre tends to go on a little too long, but he is exceptional in a scene with Grodner toward the end of the play about the origins of their birth. Jackson Davis (veteran Bay Area actor) fills out the four character play and is delightful as the confused and befuddled husband.

The Fourth Wall plays through December 28th at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, Ca. For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

The next production is Memphis, a riotous rock 'n' roll musical with music by David Bryan and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. It opens on January 21, 2004.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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