Prolific playwright A.R. Gurney is known for two wildly popular plays, “Love Letters,” and “Sylvia.” Both are basically simple and accessible — the first a sentimental chronicle of a long relationship, and the second a cute comedy about a man who is in love with his dog.
“The Fourth Wall,” which Gurney wrote more recently, is quite different and written on a more intellectual level. It is an exploration of the nature of theater — how it is like life, and how it is different from life. The cast at Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse, directed by Gene Strohl, appears to relish the play’s riddles.
It’s set in Peggy and Roger’s elegant living room and begins with Peggy rearranging the furniture to face a blank wall (actually facing the audience). Roger is concerned about her insistence on the arrangement, and invites Julia, a decorator and an old friend, to come and help him talk Peggy out of it.
As he and Julia talk, they seem to know that they are in a play or are creating a theater piece, using references to roles, plots and exits as they discuss Peggy and Julia tries to seduce Roger. Julia notes that she has come to repair a marriage that she would like to destroy.
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When Peggy talks about the wall it becomes apparent that she sees it as part of the box of her comfortable, predictable empty-nest life. She is distressed by the political climate, which she blames on George W. Bush, and she wants out of the box, to be active in world affairs and meet people of different races and cultures.
Roger has also invited Floyd, a drama instructor at the college, to come and talk to Peggy, and as Floyd enters the dialogue theater history becomes part of the repartee. The conversations are witty and sometimes funny, but it may take a while to get into the rhythm of the play within a play.
A whimsical musical component is sprinkled throughout the scenario. A player piano in the living room plays Cole Porter songs when it’s touched, and each cast member touches it and sings along at appropriate moments to songs like “Let’s Fall in Love,” “After You Who,” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Peggy observes that people think, “If everyone sings Cole Porter it will solve everything.”
Gurney’s plays are usually about the angst of upper-middle-class WASPs, and this one is on the same note. The characters are well cast and well acted. Jean Miller is convincing as Peggy, who loves her husband but wants more than a comfortable marriage. Diane Marie Steele is just right as the sexy Julia. David Norum is good as the befuddled Roger, who doesn’t understand his wife’s discontent. When John Carroll as drama teacher Floyd enters the scene, he kicks it up a notch as he spouts theatrical references and decides he’s enchanted by Peggy and disgusted by Julia.
The dialogue is clever and sprinkled with memorable lines, especially theatrical quips such as Floyd’s observation that “gays onstage make wonderful lovers — the British have been proving this for years.”
In theater language, the term “the fourth wall” refers to the invisible wall that separates the actors from the audience. The literary definition is “when a character in a story tells the reader that they know they are a character in a story.” In this play, both definitions seem to fit.
As for defining theater and life, the conclusion is that “theater is confined and artificial” and “life is active and unpredictable.” The big question is, “Does anyone break through the fourth wall?”