Wall Over

The secret, of course, is that it was never really there. I refer to the conventional theater against which all good Downtownites believe themselves to be rebelling. Oh, yes, there have been standard modes of plays and ways of playing them; no doubt one or two have even taken hold, over the years, on the lazy-minded souls who find life easier when they can believe there's only one correct way of doing things. But fighting them is a rebellion against lazy minds, not against a given form of theater. The simpler truth is that any artist who begins with a prescribed set of rules will spend the bulk of his/her career looking for ways to kick them down. The theater, where the rules tend to be given silly hifalutin names like "American realism," "the well-made play," "Broadway standards," or "the Aristotelian Unities," is probably the most flexible of all arts, and the one where expectations are most pleasurably violated. As with anything else you do in the theater, it helps if you have a good reason for violating them, since they probably evolved from the defiance of previous conventions in the first place, the way the wisecrack evolved from the parabasis.

But don't let me digress back to the living past, when we have an urgent call from the dead present. That's where A.R. Gurney, who provoked the preceding paragraph, has set his new play, The Fourth Wall. Gurney is a fascinating paradox, an old-style writer of Broadway living-room comedies who has rarely been produced on Broadway, where the living-room comedy ceased to thrive around the time he was starting out. Most securely grounded when he writes familially, within the traditional sentiments of hearth and home, he's also a restless, sharp-witted comic, who never seems happier than when giving the old conventions, both familial and theatrical, a smart kick. The tension between his heart and his brain have led him to invent a series of spontaneous forms next to which the simple rejection of the old-style Broadway format seems crude. No simple young rebel could hate the form as intensely as Gurney, who's so deeply implicated in it, and few rebels can deploy the arsenal of ingenuity and wit with which, in his more sardonic moods, he bombards it. The Fourth Wallmasquerades as a cheerful, insipid comedy, played facing front, under David Saint's direction, in the stylistic equivalent of a broad grin; but more than once during its 85 minutes, I thought about the speech in The Goat, in which the son describes his father as a loving family man who's down in the cellar, busily digging a huge pit for his home and family to fall into.

I thought of Bergman's production of A Doll's House, too, which ended with Pernilla August's Nora slamming behind her, not the stagy little "practical" door on the set, but the auditorium door, bidding goodbye to the whole theater of illusion. The heroine of Gurney's play, pluckily incarnated by Sandy Duncan, is a mature upper-class wife, kids grown, whose way of leaving her cozy suburban nest is more self-consciously theatrical than Nora's: Having started, before the play begins, by arranging all the living-room furniture to face the blank "fourth wall" through which audiences view naturalistic drama, she ultimately takes the plunge and crashes through it, emerging into direct contact with the audience that her stuffy husband has obstinately refused, all evening long, to believe is really there.

Charles Kimbrough and Sandy Duncan in The Fourth Wall: a doll's deconstruction
photo: James Lensye
Charles Kimbrough and Sandy Duncan in The Fourth Wall: a doll's deconstruction

Details

The Fourth Wall
By A.R. Gurney
Primary Stages
354 West 45th Street
212-333-4052

Chee-Chee
By Rodgers & Hart, book by Herbert Fields
Musicals Tonight!
14th Street YMHA
344 East 14th Street
212-362-5620

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What happens between the rearrangement of furniture and the breakthrough is Gurney's play, and that's where his cunning lies. He builds his dramatic action out of the power struggle for his onstage living room—not over who will rule but over what kind of play will occur there. The husband, a more liberal and decent chap than Torvald Helmer, plumps for ordinary domestic naturalism. A predatory female houseguest, up from New York (all Gurney plays take place in Buffalo), is angling for old-style comic adultery, heavily sitcom-influenced; her TV-wisecracking glibness gets roundly trashed (and even deconstructed) by the others. The heroine, abetted by a local drama professor, is edging toward something heroic in the line of Saint Joan(she should meet the heroine of Lanford Wilson's current Book of Days); and at one improbable juncture the two secondary characters nearly pitch the whole thing back into 19th-century melodrama with a parody recognition scene. As if all that weren't enough, the player piano upstage right makes constant efforts to turn the evening into a Cole Porter musical.

Most unexpected of all is the motive for Gurney's (or his heroine's) aesthetic adventurism: disgust with the current state of American politics, and specifically with George Bush. This doesn't mean that Gurney has been converted overnight into a radical playwright, but it does convey something of the extremity of our situation. Here is the genteel, soft-spoken creator of Love Letters delivering a diatribe against a sitting president and the right-wing sanctimony he represents. The aesthetic breakthrough of The Fourth Wall's finale is simultaneously a call for a return to activism; its heroine is last seen heading for Washington with plans to enlighten George Bush.

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