at the Briar Street Theatre

In Raymond J. Barry’s searing Once in Doubt, seen last fall at Remains Theatre, a tortured artist in blue jeans creates an abstract-expressionist painting with his own freely flowing blood and trades raw obscenities with his lover in their nearly empty loft apartment. A.R. Gurney’s new comedy, The Fourth Wall, is a much more genteel work. Its characters’ blood is cool and concealed; their language is proper and elegantly phrased, and the occasional vulgarism–a “fucking” here, a “twat” there–is as startling to the speaker as to the listener. Gurney’s protagonists (clad in beautifully tailored costumes by Gayland Spaulding) inhabit a cozy, costly Manhattan apartment, impeccably if impersonally furnished (by set designer Richard Ellis) with the finest in furniture and landscape paintings, like a display in an exhibition that might be called “The WASP Museum.”

But in its reserved, ironic way, The Fourth Wall is as obsessed as Once in Doubt with the artist’s need to communicate with his audience, his terror that he’s failed to do so, and his frustration with the limitations of his medium. Both plays confront the invisible “fourth wall” that separates actors and audience. In Barry’s work, the make-believe barrier becomes a blank canvas upon which his semiautobiographical surrogate smears blood from his just-opened veins; looking at the result, he wonders whether anyone will understand or buy it. In Gurney’s play–whose world premiere has been staged by David Saint, the talented director who also presided over the creation (though not the Remains production) of Once in Doubt–a well-off wife named Peggy decorates her New York living room so that it looks like a stage set, with all the furniture facing a bare wall that runs, of course, across the front of the Briar Street Theatre stage.

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out,” says Robert Frost in “Mending Wall.” But Peggy has created her fourth wall in order to raise questions–questions that may lead to a radical change in her way of life. “What if there were people beyond that wall?” she wonders, gesturing toward the audience. “What if there were poor people there, as well as rich? And what if they were ethnically diverse?”

Fat chance. Gurney knows who the bulk of his audience is: the same white, affluent culture vultures he has written about in such plays as The Cocktail Hour and Love Letters. These people enjoy the well-made, wall-framed plays that Gurney writes; but, The Fourth Wall asks, can the author of such plays actually reach his viewers with his work?

While Peggy evolves plans to break through her wall to whatever lies on the other side, her husband plots retreat. A successful Buffalo manufacturer of plastic spheres for roll-on deodorants, Roger has recently sold his balls, so to speak, to a Japanese corporation and moved to New York with the profits. He now wishes to escape the turbulent city, however, thinking that it has driven his wife slightly mad. As allies he enlists Julia, a sarcastic, sexually predatory sophisticate with a martini wit, and Floyd, a preachy NYU drama teacher.

Both visitors are intrigued by the theatrical possibilities of Peggy’s design; indeed, everyone is soon speaking in the contrived language of a pre-World War II comedy of manners, drinking stage champagne instead of the real stuff, playing broadly to an audience they’re not quite sure exists, and trying to decide where the hell the play is going: four characters in search of a plot. Will it be A Doll’s House if Peggy leaves Roger, Madame X if Floyd turns out to be Julia’s illegitimate son, or Saint Joan if Peggy becomes Joan of Arc to Bill Clinton’s Dauphin (assuming Hillary doesn’t have the part sewn up)? Will it be a sex comedy if Julia seduces Roger, or a socially conscious melodrama if Peggy and Floyd pursue their litany of Big Ideas, including homelessness, the fall of communism, and the wastefulness of consumer society?

The Fourth Wall also addresses a host of smaller issues, including the obsolescence of cigarette smoking as stage business, the martyrdom of Barbara Bush, and the deleterious impact of television on everything from sex and marriage to Western culture. Sometimes delving into these subjects but more often dancing on their surface, Gurney tosses around lots of allusions–to Beckett and Ibsen, Shakespeare and Shaw, Aristophanes and Thelma & Louise–and plucks elements from such absurdist influences as Pirandello, Ionesco, and John Guare, whose predilection for having people break into song is echoed by a player piano in The Fourth Wall that prompts people to sing Cole Porter tunes at key moments.

Some of this seems frivolous; conveying his fears of being artificial, Gurney occasionally confirms them. Yet The Fourth Wall expresses an intelligent and genuine belief that good healthy theater is necessary in a healthy, self-critical society. And it does so through bright, witty dialogue, delivered with rhythmic precision under Saint’s brisk direction.

The best lines go mostly to stinging, self-centered Julia, a woman almost anyone would enjoy spending time with as long as one kept one’s back to the (fourth) wall; she seems to embody the worst fears Gurney has about his audience and himself, but she’s delightful company nonetheless, especially in Jean De Baer’s delicious, perfectly timed performance. She’s nicely complemented as a supporting foil by Mark Nelson’s quirky Floyd, a gay academic who finds himself erotically “reoriented” by the pseudo-naturalistic perfection of Peggy’s stagy decor (surely a dig at Aesthetic Realism, a philosophy that preaches sexual conversion through artistic appreciation) and who despairs at a society that can cancel classes in world drama in favor of media studies.

But the play’s heart lies with Peggy and Roger, whose midlife quests can interest us only if the actors play the full feeling underneath the clever dialogue. The quietly intense Betty Buckley does: a warm, compassionate presence, Buckley finds Peggy’s courage as well as her eccentricity (and of course any show that offers a chance to hear Buckley sing even a little Cole Porter is worthwhile). But George Segal, cast to type as charming but bewildered Roger, never digs beneath the nice-guy surface familiar from his movie roles. His walk-through performance compounds a basic flaw in the play: the lack of connection in Roger and Peggy’s remote-control marriage.

The quiet crisis they reach, over whether to retreat to familiar territory or push on into an unexplored and possibly unattainable world, parallels Gurney’s own situation as an artist. The fact that he’s discussing it is evidence that he is an artist; his faith that an audience will listen is evidence that he’s an optimistic one. Gurney’s commitment as well as his cleverness makes this play worth seeing; but I wonder if his fascination with the fourth wall isn’t somewhat self-defeating. The way to develop and maintain a living theater is to write plays with more passion, not more artifice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mitchell Canoff.