KPBS AIRDATE: May 4, 1994 >
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Poet Robert Frost and playwright A.R. Gurney, for starters. In his latest endeavor, Gurney, chief chronicler of the wealthy WASP experience in America, has broken down the fourth wall, the imaginary boundary between actor and audience. It’s by no means the first time this has been done, but this particular theatrical experiment makes me think again of Frost, who cautioned that “good fences make good neighbors.” Breaking down this barrier doesn’t really do anyone any good.
The premise is that, in some mid-life, upper middle-class, empty-nest epiphany, Peggy has come to see her life as some sort of play and she wants her friends and family to act it out, though she has no idea of the plot or through-line. Or so other characters tell us. Peggy turns her living room around so all the furniture faces a blank wall, that is to say, the audience, which is behind the fourth wall, which just happens to be the title of the play.
And for two hours, we get a virtual lecture, a highly specific, sometimes pedantic Drama 101 discourse on the relationship between theater and life and the crisis of the modern American theater. In trying to be clever, informative and farcical all at the same time, Gurney succeeds most in being smug.
The play is never funny, but it’s drowning in theatrical in-jokes. “I have the sense I’m missing something,” says Peggy, and you can almost feel a collective nod from the audience.
In his ridicule of empty, modern drama, bourgeois domestic comedy and television moronia, Gurney can be as soporific as he is sarcastic. He knows theater, all right, and Buffalo (his hometown and the play’s setting); he knows New York and he can write crackling dialogue. But despite all these ingredients, plus a luscious set and four talented actors, all you want to say is “So what?”
Same question haunts productions in National City and College Grove, but all for different reasons. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, we’ve got “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” a tiny rockabilly musical revue that’s so down-home, so country, so corny, it makes you want to tap your toes and toss your cookies. Like “Forever Plaid” and others of its ilk, it’s a nostalgia trip with little plot, just an excuse to sing a lot of songs. Unlike “Plaid,” however, the songs here aren’t wonderful, and neither, in this production, are the singers. There’s a lot of fun, and interaction with the audience (there goes that fourth wall again), and the cast of six is very endearing, but no voice thrills with these hackneyed, smarmy songs with not-too-clever lyrics. The production is ultra-cute, though, and spunky, and very well put together — from the down-to-the-last-hokey-detail set and costumes, to the wonderful musicianship and peppy direction. If your theater taste runs no deeper than a cup of diner coffee, this is the place for you.
On the other hand, if you like a soupçon of satirical stimulation in your dramatic fare, head out to Octad-One for David Storey’s 1970 exercise in non sequiturs, “Home.” A tremendous challenge, the play is hard to do and harder to pull off, even, one imagines, by the likes of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who starred in the original production.
It’s a rahther British piece about five strange and noncommunicative people barely at home in what may be a mental institution or may represent England itself. So little happens, and there are so many walls erected (I just want to keep your wall-consciousness raised), that it’s difficult to discern the subtext or maintain concentration. Some of the accents come and go, though Dagmar Krause Fields and Mary Ann McKay never fail to amuse. Kudos to director Martin Gerrish for always avoiding the predictable with his company…
All this goes to show that there’s something for everyone on San Diego stages. I just didn’t happen to be precisely the right one for any of these productions this week. The theater season is heating up, though, and I’m more than ready to be ignited.
For KPBS radio, I’m Pat Launer.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.