Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Fourth Wall by A. R. Gurney

L - R Cliff Ingram,  Melissa Virgo, Tammy Goolsbey, Richard Valentin Jr. 

By Joe Straw

All actors have heard of the “the fourth wall”.  For non-actors who have not, it is “the imaginary wall of a box set through which the audience sees the stage.  The fourth wall convention is an established convention of modern realistic theatre, where the actors carry out their actions unaware of the audience.”  -

The Fourth Wall by A.R. Gurney is an ingenious play.  No, it is a devilishly delightful play of one-liners.  I could almost hear the imaginary “rim shots” of a clever percussionist with each amusing quip.  Directed by Randall Gray and presented at Stages Gray Theatre Company in Pasadena, this show will have you laughing throughout the night.   

The play was first produced August 3, 1992 in Westport Connecticut and the setting is “modern day”. I saw was the fourth revision of this play and for the sake of the “modern day setting” references, we’ll travel back to 2002, back to Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld era.   

Roger (Cliff Ingram), a strong variety of a henpecked husband, is having problems with his marriage to Peggy (Carolyn Heier), a no-nonsense get-to-the-point kind of woman.  He enlists Julia (Melissa Virgo), a no-holes-barred, sex-starved “friend”, to visit so that he can show her what his wife has done to their home.

And what a home it appears to be.  In the living room, the three walls are festooned like a badly decorated set, bad cat paintings on the wall above the fireplace that is rankled with fake flowers, other thrift shop paintings not fit for human observation, a theatrical bar (no alcohol just colored water), and an odd thing: the chairs and couch all facing the bare imaginary fourth wall.

Roger and Julia glare at this titivation of a bare fourth wall.  Terror engulfs them, beyond their epidermal region of their fleshy tingling nerve endings, and as they stand there the wall has a very dramatic effect on both of them.  

“This room makes you feel, the minute you walk in, as if you were acting in a play!” – Julia

“It does indeed, Julia!   And perhaps you’ve noticed that ever since we’ve come in, we’ve been talking in a stagey sort of way.” – Roger

“I have noticed that! – Julia

All this play-acting is odd for Roger because he is a “real person,” a manufacturer of small plastic balls for roll-on deodorants, and not an actor. Julia thinks Roger has a great job – in these anxious and sweaty times – all the while keeping an eye on his monetary worth and availability.  But, no matter, she has a job to do.  She wants to know when Peggy started acting peculiar; she wonders why this happened, and how long this has been going on.

Ever since the Supreme Court handed over the election to George W. Bush, Peggy has reawakened her left leaning tendencies.

“But when he (Bush) started talking about rushing off to war – in all directions – without friends or allies – she suddenly ripped everything off this wall and focused all our furniture on its basic blankness.”  - Roger

Distraught Roger pours champagne only to discover that it’s stage champagne (ginger ale) because drinking alcohol could cause them to slur their words and say something inappropriate in front of the fourth wall.

Julia says, she can help, it’s going to cost a lot, and it’s probably not going to be covered by their homeowners insurance.

Trying to find a truth to this theatrical dilemma, Rogers confides to Julia that Peggy thinks her life is in danger. Julia, seeming to know theatre jargon, says that Peggy is introducing the “jeopardy element.”

Roger says it’s gotten so bad that a guy with a Bush/Cheney sticker flipped her off because she made a “left” turn.  Julia chimes in with a plausible explanation, “It sounds like road rage from the right.”

Julia, trying to find a solution, suggests they play Peggy’s game to find out what she is up to. But it doesn’t work and Julia is actually glad that it doesn’t work.  She has an edacity for her particular type of sexual want.

“ I suddenly find myself wanting Peggy to continue down this strange road.  Why?  So that you’ll become so frustrated with her that you’ll turn elsewhere for solace and sex.” - Julia

“Elsewhere?” – Roger

“Namely to me.” – Julia

It’s a little nutty but Julia is convinced that Peggy needs a straight jacket.  Roger doesn’t like that idea, despite its dramatic appeal.  So he calls a theatre professor, Professor Floyd Loesser.

“Only because we need the cool, dispassionate eye of academia to examine our situation and advise what steps to take next.” – Roger

“I’ve never much liked college professors.  I’ve had affairs with several, and they seem obsessed with tenure.” – Julia.

So when the sagacious Floyd (Richard Valentin Jr.) arrives, he first shares his curriculum vitae, stresses that comedy is serious business, and sets out to solve the problems of the fourth wall and Peggy.  

Melissa Virgo and Richard Valentin Jr. 

Melissa Virgo is entertaining as Julia.  She does some amazing physical things on stage, most of these work and some not so much. As the character, her physical relationship with her counterpart did not move beyond the petting stages, her hands all over him all the time, without the slightest interest in the wife in the other room. The character should truly pick her moments. Julia’s entrance needs work and her persona should change dramatically when she sees the fourth wall—possibly with a lighting adjustment. She should take a moment (or a few) to absorb the fourth wall before speaking. For the first ten minutes of the show, I kept thinking:  Who is she? And what is she to her counterpart? Also, if she is trying to steal the husband, she must help him overcome his problem first, when that doesn’t work, then jump his bones. Still, these were only slight problems that require minor adjustments, in an otherwise fine performance.  

Cliff Ingram as Roger has a great look and a powerful voice, which, at times, blew me off my seat.   But with all those pluses, Ingram needs work on his character, his objective, and his singing skills—the volume of his voice needs to correspond to the size of the house.  Even with three microphones hanging from the ceiling, the audience could barely make out the Cole Porter song he was singing.   Roger is a character with the objective of wanting to save his marriage. The conflict is that his wife is done with him. Still that doesn’t stop him from trying. (But you needn’t be so wimpy about it. Go for it!) But then he invites the “friend” over. A defined character comes with time and one hopes that he is able to grasp the core of the character within the time frame of rehearsals.  But, with more performances under his belt, he should do just fine. Still, Ingram has some very fine comic moments.  

Carolyn Heier played Peggy this night and did a marvelous job.  She is very small but carries a lot of weight in her performance.  Her moments were precise and her entrances and exits had flair about them. And as the character, she imagines there are people beyond the fourth wall and she needs to find the will to discover those people in order to make sense of her decorating skills.  And like her marriage, she is ambivalent about crossing over until she finds the courage to do just that.  Heier has a marvelous understanding of her craft, her instrument, and her objective.

Richard Valentin Jr. is Floyd and was extremely enjoyable and funny.  As the professor he tries to unravel the mystery of the fourth wall, by his profundity in all things theatrical, and winds up solving a mystery of his own.  He defines the stage, the props, and other accouterments that make up theatre. He enjoys his words and like to listens to himself much as anyone likes to listen to an accomplished parrot. He is a very demanding director putting the players in their place.  He is inspired by his own creativity and needs the excitement of his discovery of Saint Joan to carry him through into the next scene.  Still, Valentin is marvelous in the role and there is some wonderful work going on here.  

There is a lot to like about Randall Gray’s direction and all of the really nice things in this production.  Nonetheless, there is more work to do, only minor adjustments, scenes that needed a jolt, a building of excitement.  Every show needs a grand opening and I believe this show needs one as well without trying to discover who these people are to each other. And as a necessity, the actors need to bring a back-story the moment their character steps on stage.  It is a way to negotiate a truth even before they make their appearance before the fourth wall.  The opening moments had little in the way of backstory, but nothing so serious it couldn’t be fixed.  Also, the professor is on the verge of something, a breakthrough, and in his excitement of love, he runs offstage with the news only to discover something bad is going on with the seditious duo in the other bedroom. But when the players come back the whole scene is downplayed, like nothing happened, when we all know that something happened, or at least we, as the audience have played out the scenario, rolled it around, and expect the most from our guilty party.  Gray is the Artistic Director/Producer and was responsible for the Set Design and Construction.  He was a pretty busy guy.  One hopes this new company grows with each new production.

A. R. Gurney has written a marvelous show in The Fourth Wall. The characters have creative objectives and they go about their lives knowing there is a fourth wall which makes this all so fun. I love plays about theatre, actors, the craft, the excitement, and, for gosh sakes, lets not leave out the sex.  Oh and there’s singing too, Cole Porter. I couldn’t ask any anything more.

There are performers I did not see on this night.  They are Allen Corben (Roger), Tammy Goolsbey (Peggy), and Robert Sherry (Floyd).

Barb Woods was the Stage Manager and Phillip Sokoloff is the Press Representative.

Alexander Nifong is the Technical Director and Janean Gray is the Business Manager.    

Run.  And take an actor friend who likes to take the plunge into the other three walls from time to time.

Through July 20, 2013.

Reservations:  909-461-7375

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