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THEATER REVIEW : Gurney’s ‘The Fourth Wall’ an Experiment in Error

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Consumer Warning: Before entering the Pasadena Playhouse, read a history of contemporary drama and ingest gallons of caffeine.

Then odds are you’ll pass the test of A. R. Gurney’s “The Fourth Wall.” But there’s a far greater chance that you won’t care. The drop-out rate to this experiment in error should make fans of “Love Letters” nostalgic for the playwright’s good old plays.

Unfortunately, that’s why the esteemed Gurney wrote “The Fourth Wall”: to break free of past patterns. Instead of another drawing-room comedy like “The Cocktail Hour,” the 63-year-old author of more than 20 plays has timidly ventured into absurdist territory, but his approach is far too didactic. Rather than genuinely liberating drama, “The Fourth Wall” resembles a lecture on Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect.”

Call it “Four Characters in Search of a Plot.” The actors do. In fact, the performers never let us forget we’re an audience in a theater watching a stage play.

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The curtain rises to become an imagined wall in an affluent Buffalo, N.Y., living room. During a mid-life crisis, Peggy (Barrie Youngfellow) has turned her furniture away from the fireplace and toward this blank wall. Evidently unfamiliar with minimalism, sophisticated New Yorker Julia (Jean De Baer) is shocked by such artificiality.

“I keep thinking of plays,” says Julia while peering intently at the imagined blank wall and at us. ". . . I keep thinking I need a better exit line.”

But her childhood friend Roger (Sam Freed) doesn’t want Julia to leave. He begs her to help resolve his spouse’s crisis. He’s “trapped in a play not of my own making.” So they conspire to find a better plot. But Peggy, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, gestures at the audience and declares: “We must break through the fourth wall.”

In desperation, Roger phones a local drama instructor and requests a house call. Dr. Floyd Loesser (Jim Fyfe) rushes in to offer a second opinion. “Beware of comparing life and the theater,” declares the frantic academic.

Such exhausted sketch material rarely amuses. Some evidence exists that the playwright considers this West Coast premiere to be his “Noises Off”; the Three Stooges would have to return from the grave to transform this into farce. To compound the evening’s tedium, director David Saint mistakes Gurney’s modest cleverness for Noel Coward wit. So we get sincere, self-conscious dialogue about the meaning of life and the crisis of the modern American theater.

The capable company struggles courageously with the pretentious subject. De Baer is a triumph of style over substance as the unsophisticated cosmopolitan. Fyfe’s high-minded professor is appropriately dysfunctional. Freed and Youngfellow are a convincing couple in an unconvincing crisis.

Why this? Gurney has toyed with theatrical conventions far more inventively, particularly in “The Dining Room.” But everyone’s imagination seems bankrupt here.

The problem here isn’t the presence of an imagined “fourth wall"--it’s the absence of one. We long for something between us and the play. One hopes that Gurney liberated himself during this writing exercise. But in an effort to free American drama of aesthetic restraints, he constructed a classic example of why audiences flee the theater.

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* “The Fourth Wall,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends April 24. $33.50-$40. (818) 356-PLAY; (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours.

Sam Freed: Roger

Jean De Baer: Julia

Barrie Youngfellow: Peggy

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Jim Fyfe: Floyd

A. R. Gurney’s play. Directed by David Saint. Sets by Scott Heineman. Lights by Martin Aronstein. Costumes by Zoe DuFour.


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