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.
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.
Living her circumscribed suburban life within the solid walls of her home, she is denied the camaraderie of her fellow citizenry, and this is no idle concern. It is the wish for one of the earliest conceptions of the nation, envisioned by Puritan settler John Winthrop, who described members of the colony he would establish as being part of a single body: "All the parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must need partake of each other's strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weale and woe." And even as the unseen audience becomes a stand-in for the citizenry to which Peggy has been taught not to hold herself accountable, it also becomes a stand-in for generations yet to be. Peggy cannot bear the notion that an unseen audience is judging her on her inability to correct the ills of the world, and she wants to act — to end the war, to cure AIDS, to end starvation. She must do these things, she knows, for there are people whose fate shall be determined by her own ability to see herself as an active participant in the world: an actor. As this moment played onstage, I felt more alive to the possibilities of the theater than I had been in a long while. Dear God, I thought, they're really going to go for it! But they didn't. When the scene was over, it was back to clever self-references and laughter. It felt like a retreat, or like Gurney had teased us with the moment just to show us how superior he is to his creation.
It was OK to laugh at Monty Python's The Meaning of Life because you knew the Pythons didn't really care for meaning and wouldn't have much use for it if they found it. The hell of The 4th Wall is that Gurney did find it, or came close, and he laughed too. Gurney is a smart man, so maybe he knows what he's doing. But I want to be more convinced before I join in. After all, when Peggy is pointing to all the unseen citizens beyond the wall, she is pointing to us. She never laughs once.