Impolitic Levity

The Avenue Theater uses The Fourth Wall as laffy taffy.

I loved this production of The Fourth Wallwhen I saw it at the late lamented Nomad Theatre -- directed, as now, by Billie McBride and featuring the same cast -- and I fully expected to love it again at the Avenue. But I didn't. The script remains witty and literate, the actors have settled into their roles and give their comic all. But though I laughed out loud several times, and though my companions were delighted with the performance, and though I really have no qualms about recommending The Fourth Wall as an entertaining evening of theater -- it simply didn't provide the satisfaction I'd felt at the renovated old Quonset hut on Boulder's Quince Street, when the approach was perhaps less polished, but also more thoughtful and exploratory.

Playwright A.R. Gurney is a courteous, upper-crust kind of guy, famed for such civilized pieces as The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour, Love Lettersand Sylvia. So when he found himself enraged by national politics, he didn't respond with agitprop or searing realism. Instead he imagined a comfortably middle-class housewife, Peggy, who -- by way of protest -- rearranges all the furniture in her living room so that it faces an imaginary theatrical fourth wall. Roger, Peggy's husband, is alarmed by this. He brings in Julia, the couple's pretentious interior decorator friend, to assess the situation. But Gurney is fascinated by theatrical convention, so anyone entering Peggy's living room soon begins behaving like a character on a stage -- and the resultant mix of realism and the actors' frantic bouts of self-aware staginess creates a cascade of evocative moments and clever jokes. There's also a piano that plays Cole Porter all by itself at key moments. Eventually, Peggy, Julia and Roger are joined by theater professor Floyd, who's more a provider of snatches of theater criticism, lore and history than he is an actual human being.

Peggy believes that the fourth wall is permeable, that beyond her sheltered world there are people watching, people of every race and nationality, and that she can somehow persuade them to rise together and halt the madness of George W. Bush's foreign policy. She stays true to her vision as Julia preens, poses and -- fettered in the attempt to create a plotline by the limits of her highly conventional imagination -- tries to seduce Roger; as Roger attempts to fathom Peggy and almost succumbs to Julia; and as Floyd alternately urges Peggy to engage in new forms of theater and pronounces her an incarnation of Shaw's St. Joan.

Rhonda Brown and Scott McLean in The Fourth 
Wall.
Rhonda Brown and Scott McLean in The Fourth Wall.

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Presented by the Avenue Theater through October 1, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com
417 East 17th Avenue

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Peggy's rage and sadness underlie all the high jinks and give The Fourth Wallits energy. Without that, the play is little but a bunch of theatrical in-jokes -- amusing but inconsequential. Edith Weiss is perfectly cast as Peggy. She has a harried, bewildered look that contrasts perfectly with Rhonda Brown's glossy bitchiness as Julia. But her acting is a little stagy; you don't really believe in either her yearning or her joy when she finally breaks through the fourth wall. And yet I remember finding this scene genuinely touching at Nomad. There are mechanical reasons why it's less so at the Avenue, which doesn't provide much space or light between the set and the audience for Peggy to occupy. Still, I think both Weiss and director McBride could have paid far more attention to this key moment.

You could see the possibility of subtlety eroding from the very beginning, when Rhonda Brown's Julia and Paul A. Dunne as Roger began posing and over-projecting from the moment they got on stage, instead of sliding into staginess by degrees as the power of the fourth wall affected them. It's not that these performances aren't strong; I'd just like to see them more modulated. Scott McLean is a hoot as Floyd -- he's all over the stage, leaping, emoting, lecturing, full of insane enthusiasms. So it seems churlish to say that I wish he'd tone it down a bit, but I do. It seems to me his performance could be just as full of pep and feeling without distracting so much from the wry comedy of the script.

It's not that The Fourth Wall is a profound play. It isn't, though it does have some depths. Or that it's not meant to be funny. Of course it is. But it's also a very smart and thoughtful playwright's take on how we should respond to a corrupt body politic, and on the role of art in a culture where things have gone this wrong. To use it for nothing but shallow comedy and brittle characterization seems to me mistaken.

 
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