As political protests go, interior decorating seems less provocative than, say, marching in the streets or giving the keynote speech at a rival political party's national convention. In the Alliance Theatre's The Fourth Wall, however, a privileged suburban housewife named Peggy (Courtenay Collins) shows her opposition to George W. Bush by rearranging her living room decor.
As A.R. Gurney's misfiring political satire begins, Peggy's husband, Roger (Craig Wroe), shows her old pal Julia (Linda Kimbrough) how all the living room furniture now faces a completely blank wall. It resembles the way stage sets traditionally face the invisible, so-called "fourth wall" that separates the play from the audience. As Roger points out, anyone who lingers in the room becomes infected by an uncontrollable "theatricality": "We've been talking in a stagey sort of way," he points out, quite rightly. The room even includes a player piano programmed to Cole Porter, so the cast can break into song between confrontations.
If you consider the premise from the characters' points of view, The Fourth Wall defies logic. Why would people facing a blank wall so strongly feel as though they're standing on a theatrical set? Peggy tells Julia that facing the wall makes her feel connected to an unseen, diverse mass of people with hungry minds. She's talking about us, but are we supposed to be just the Alliance subscribers? Blue state voters? The middle-American populace? Peggy also rails against SUVs and the Bush administration's unilateralism, but the play never really reconciles her leftist politics with her stage-play obsession.
Rather than call a shrink, Roger summons flamboyant drama professor Floyd (Jeffrey Kuhn) to diagnose his wife's motivations. Floyd concludes that they're all acting out Peggy's personal play, but is she the hero of a lowbrow domestic comedy, or a complex work that challenges American materialism and complacency? Julia lives up to the requirements of a sex farce when she tries to seduce Roger, but when the pair watch television rather than commit adultery, Peggy grieves that her husband succumbed to cultural mediocrity.
The Fourth Wall truly comes alive when Floyd suggests that Peggy may be an inspirational figure on par with Joan of Arc. When Peggy contemplates abandoning her middle-class comforts and embracing a life of activism, she breaks into Porter's "Big Town" and conveys the feeling of being on the brink of something momentous. The Fourth Wall best connects with the audience by suggesting that, like Peggy, we have the choice of emerging as heroes in a timeless, deeply themed drama, or settling for being stock players in a forgettable, frivolous laugh fest.
The Fourth Wall's humor relies heavily on Gurney's theatrical in-jokes, like references to A Doll's House and the sight of "real" people uncomfortably succumbing to theatrical conventions. When two characters discover a long-lost personal connection (proven when they discover they have life-long keepsakes that fit together perfectly), the play amusingly evokes 19th-century melodrama.
But The Fourth Wall feels less like Peggy's internal struggle than the playwright's. Gurney specializes in wry, WASP-y comedies of modern manners like Sylvia and The Dining Room, but The Fourth Wall finds him self-consciously trying to impose his political outrage into his usual, dryly comic mode. Floyd describes Peggy being torn between two kinds of drama, but that doesn't excuse The Fourth Wall's own bipolar disorder.
Director Susan V. Booth subtly tries to temper the play's high emotions. Peggy rails against Bush's isolationist policies and believes that right-wing goons stalk her, but Collins gives a zany quality to Peggy's anti-Bush paranoia, as if signaling that actual conservatives in the audience needn't take her words too seriously.
Still, the Alliance miscalculated by scheduling The Fourth Wall for immediately after a presidential campaign. Triumphant Republicans and dragging Democrats alike suffer from election fatigue, and Gurney's Bush-bashing would've played better back in the spring. The Fourth Wall's theater jokes amuse sporadically, but its heated politics prove to be no laughing matter.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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