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 Wall masquerades 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.
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.
It would be misleading to claim that Gurney has been reborn overnight as a political dramatist. The play’s criticism of Bush is generalized and anodyne at best. But the complaint is trivial, in the face of the innumerable American light entertainments that do not criticize a sitting president. There is going to be a lot of protest marching in the next two years; why should we object if a writer as distinguished and widely produced as Gurney marches with us? We can explain to him about political drama as we go, while he can return the favor by exercising his wit. He’s perfectly welcome to bring along the jolly quartet that seems to be having so much fun helping him dismantle our old stage habits: the delightful Duncan, Susan Sullivan, Charles Kimbrough, and David Pittu. They’d better bring the piano, too: We’re going to need a lot of Cole Porter to remind us that the American musical tradition is not conservative property.
If you want proof of that last assertion, you need only drop in on the Musicals Tonight! staged concert of Rodgers & Hart’s 1928 curiosity, Chee-Chee. I don’t mean that you’d enjoy Chee-Chee—no one liked it in 1928 and I doubt that anyone does now—but its peculiarity makes it an object of fascination on several fronts. First and foremost, it gives you a prime opportunity to shut up all the idiots who claim that pre-Oklahoma! musicals did not “integrate” book and score: Chee-Chee has a loosely written script, but every note sung in that script rises directly out of its dialogue and situation. The same bozos often suggest that, in musicals’ subject matter, darker equals better, or more “mature” or some such nonsense. Well, Chee-Chee is a lighthearted, almost arrogantly frivolous ’20s musical, and the humor is about as dark as it can get. Adultery, rape, flagellation, and castration are the principal sources of humor, with sidelines in bribery, hypocrisy, and decapitation (“We bow our heads in reverence/Lest we should feel their severance”). If Trevor Nunn had really wanted to stage a “dark” Richard Rodgers musical, he missed his chance when he chose a cheery cowboy whoop-up with one knife fight and one bad dream over this insouciant mix of Baudelairean schadenfreude, chinoiserie, and fox-trots.
The musical’s source, an ostensibly comic novel by one Charles Pettit called The Son of the Grand Eunuch, is a prolonged lubricious snigger about what a faithful wife is willing to do to preserve her husband’s life. Summoned to join the band of castrated sages around his father, Li-Pi-Tchou runs away, taking his stunningly beautiful (and more than a little narcissistic) wife, Chee-Chee. As they bounce from one life-threatening situation to another, Chee-Chee constantly has to rescue her husband by giving herself to large, dangerous, charismatic men; Li-Pi-Tchou doesn’t get murdered, but he always seems to end up getting flogged. Herbert Fields’s woolly script for the musical tightens the screws on Tchou’s misery by making his conniving father partly responsible. (The show’s paternal authority figures are all either absent, vicious, or dishonest.) Mercifully, the adaptors also invented a second couple, consisting of the Grand Eunuch’s Americanized daughter, Li Li Wee (her name a jokey allusion to a pseudo-Hawaiian Jerome Kern song), and the Emperor’s neglected son. Outfoxing their elders, they get both happiness and the score’s best songs. Director Thomas Mills and his mostly young cast have an understandably hard time focusing Fields’s wayward dialogue, and the singing, except for the two female leads, is often below even Musicals Tonight!’s modest standards. But Chee-Chee is a work so distinctive and disturbing (not to say daring) that producer Mel Miller and his hardy shoestring troupe probably deserve more praise for this improbable venture than for all the rest of their commendable work put together.