A Room With a Viewpoint

Playwright A.R. Gurney is angry. He considers the Bush administration a disaster; he condemns its boneheaded policies, its indifference to the plight of the poor, its preemptive war on Iraq. But Gurney is a kind-spirited, bourgeois, WASP kind of guy, and in The Fourth Wall, his anger is expressed through humor, metaphor, the protagonist's rather gentle reproaches and -- believe it or not -- the songs of Cole Porter. Surprisingly, it's all the more effective for that.

Peggy, a middle-class housewife, is so distressed at the direction her country is taking that she redecorates her living room. She turns all the furnishings to face one wall -- the "fourth wall" -- in the theater, the invisible one that separates us from the actors. This blank barrier has a significant effect on everyone in the play. Husband Roger is so disturbed and mystified that he calls in an old friend to assess the situation: Julia, a brittle interior decorator from New York. Julia, too, finds Peggy's actions inexplicable. But something happens to Julia and Roger as they talk in what both agree looks like a stage set. They become self-conscious. They preen. They begin to act. Pretty soon, Julia is trying to either invent or discover the plot line.

A cascade of self-referential jokes about theater and its relationship to real life follows, becoming torrential when Floyd, a drama professor from a small local college, appears on the scene. Floyd doesn't like Julia's ideas about plot. He finds them both dated and cheap, he says, reminiscent of second-rate British drawing-room comedy. Yet Peggy inspires him. He wants to work with her to experiment, find new forms and revitalize American theater. Peggy seeks revolution, too, though of a different kind. She wants to reach out beyond her wall and set the world to rights.

And every time anyone touches the piano, it starts playing Cole Porter tunes all by itself and the actors are obliged to sing.

There are two realities here. Even as Julia, Roger and Floyd pose for their imaginary audience, they believe in the wall. They know that Peggy's living room is self-enclosed. Peggy herself, however, is convinced that the wall represents a passage to something larger and more important than her little world, that there are people beyond her wall of every race and religion, and from every country.

Director Billie McBride has assembled a very able group of actors, and this is a satisfying production. Rhonda Lee Brown is a bitchily fascinating Julia, posing and primping, deliberately stagey and yet clear in everything she does and says. Edith Weiss is a puzzled, comical Peggy, and Paul A. Dunne a pleasant Roger. Scott McLean has loads of fun with the pretentious Floyd.

The Fourth Wall is full of references to other plays and echoes of other playwright's words. Floyd compares Peggy to Shaw's St. Joan, a comparison she likes until he explains how the saint's heroism helped further the concept of nationalism. He sees her also as Ibsen's Nora, who left her husband and slammed the door of her stifling home behind her in A Doll's House. The Fourth Wall is propelled as much by the author's fascination with theater -- what it is, what it can be, its limitations -- as by his political concerns, though ultimately, of course, the two themes mesh.

As Floyd and Julia toss off their previous characterizations to create a subplot reminiscent of Dickens at his most absurdly melodramatic (and with a nod -- surely -- to Miss Prism's carpetbag in The Importance of Being Earnest), Peggy and Roger seem, you'll have to go and find out for yourself.

You should. Really. Because this play gives pleasure on so many levels. It's wise and caring in the most lighthearted way imaginable, erudite without a trace of pomposity, funny and endearing, forceful without ever becoming mean-spirited. I found myself snorting with surprised laughter time and again, and so did the rest of the audience.

The Nomad Theatre is suffering through a financial crisis and has just gone through a major reorganization. It would be an irony worthy of Gurney if the theater were to fail just as it seems to have found its artistic footing.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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