Too Clever by a Fourth

A.R. Gurney's The 4th Wall at Palm Beach Dramaworks comes close to its potential before dashing it all

Midway through Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, there's a scene in which several exotic fish offer a critique of the film thus far. They praise the preceding scene — called "Find the Fish" — but complain that, fun as it all is, nobody's said much about "the meaning of life" just yet. In the Python film, you don't care. For Palin and his pals, absurdist mockery of human nature really does seem like meaning enough.

Watching A.R. Gurney's The 4th Wall, I flashed back to that scene and wondered how such a similar situation could have turned so singularly depressing at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Whatever the problem is, it isn't obvious. The 4th Wall is well-acted, well-directed, and well-attended. The energy is high, the laughs are big, and the script is smart. But I don't trust it.

Details

The 4th Wall Written by A.R. Gurney. Directed by J. Barry Lewis. With Patti Gardner, Angie Radosh, Peter Thomasson, and Gregg Weiner. Presented through February 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Call 561-514-4042, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.com.

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The 4th Wall is as meta as its title promises. In the opening scene, a troubled, middle-aged man named Roger (Peter Thomasson) and an old friend visiting from New York City (Angie Radosh) are standing in Roger's living room, where one of the walls has been stripped of all decoration. This is "the fourth wall" — in theater, the imaginary wall between actors and audience — and, true to dramatic tradition, the room's furniture has been oriented toward it. This was the work of Roger's wife, Peggy (Patti Gardner). Roger explains that Peggy's bizarre redecorating kick began after the election of George W. Bush, some three years previous. Now, whenever the couple interact in the room, they really do feel like actors on a stage. Roger is exhausted by it. Worse, his wife has begun imagining herself at the center of a GOP conspiracy. When she enters, she is a blue blur of agitation, crowing about an armed stranger who passed her a note on the street, demanding that she repopulate the fourth wall of her living room. President Bush is behind it, she knows. Breathlessly discussing this, the characters self-consciously refer to the events unfolding around them as "scenes." They refer to exposition as exposition and their entrances as entrances. Before the blank face of the fourth wall, they are all aware of themselves as actors in a drama, and the play consists entirely of their figuring out what to do about it.

In a great many ways, The 4th Wall is the sort of play I've been praying Palm Beach Dramaworks would do more of — a thinking-heavy, music-lite piece that challenges the kind of people who shell out big bucks for a Sondheim retrospective.

And it may do more than that. It may, in spite of itself, actually inspire people to live more intensely. Since such a goal is the only one that good art can reasonably set for itself, one may be tempted to leave it at that and, instead of bitching, spend one's time admiring the craft that's gone into the production. Scenic designer Michael Amico's living-room set is very poised, very artful, and very frozen — very much a "set." When Roger explains to Angie Radosh's character, Julia, that the champagne he's pouring is only "stage champagne" and therefore won't get her drunk, you're not really surprised. This is taking place in a room where real champagne would be unimaginable; a room that, despite belonging to a modern family, contains what looks like a 70-year-old W48 German telephone (never used to complete a call), among other props that intentionally look like props. The static, stagy nature of the set does not go unnoticed by the characters. Everything they do and say is instantly vetted for staginess.

You'd think such self-conscious thinking would be difficult for actors to bring off compellingly, but the opposite appears true. Radosh is visibly enlivened by the performance opportunities afforded by the wall. When she finds herself alone in the living room, she poses, touches her hair, and casts around for something to do. She sings along with a player piano and quickly develops a subplot for herself, full of romantic intrigue and melodrama. If the possibility of living more intensely is the brass ring in art, it must be worth something to watch an actor capture that potentiality onstage. Gregg Weiner, who plays a drama professor brought in to shed light on the couple's predicament, appears similarly vivified: A man who has studied theater all his life, he is brought to life by the possibility of being an actor himself. Thomasson is fine, and Patti Gardner really does seem driven by a force demanding she perform... something.

It is the "something" that contains the play's promise. There comes a moment near the middle of the play when Peggy is standing in the living room, pointing at the wall, almost crying with frustration at her inability to explain that there, right there, just beyond the wall, may be people. She imagines they inhabit a country that is better than the one she has been taught to accept, and she imagines that it might be democratic, full of people of varying races and genders and political orientations. Without saying as much, she describes the wall as a false consciousness that functions as an impediment to the creation of the sort of country America was supposed to be.

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