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The Fourth Wall

The typically cogent A.R. Gurney this time has penned a light and overly long skit about four characters who feel funny in a room with a blank fourth wall. "It's like in a play," one says right off, knocking down the first domino of theatrical in-jokes. While designed as commentary on the state of today's theater, "The Fourth Wall" comes off as what's worst in theater: High-concept, no plot, lots of mugging and no drive.

The typically cogent A.R. Gurney this time has penned a light and overly long skit about four characters who feel funny in a room with a blank fourth wall. “It’s like in a play,” one says right off, knocking down the first domino of theatrical in-jokes. While designed as commentary on the state of today’s theater, “The Fourth Wall” comes off as what’s worst in theater: High-concept, no plot, lots of mugging and no drive.

In Peggy and Roger’s Buffalo, N.Y., home, whoever goes into the living room has the odd sensation that he or she is on stage. The elegant room with a piano and fireplace faces a wall with nothing on it — the “fourth wall,” which separates actors from the audience, the imaginary wall over which everyone normally suspends their disbelief.

Peggy (Barrie Youngfellow) wants to break through it. Her husband Roger (Sam Freed) just wants the room fixed. His friend Julia, a designer (Jean De Baer), wants to help, and Floyd Lesser (Jim Fyfe), a professor of theater at a local university, wants to keep theatrical order to the room.

Though the writer pushes for the comedy, the concept has fallen off a wall and director David Saint and all the cast members can’t put Gurney’s dumping back together again.

This isn’t to say Gurney’s wit isn’t evident — it’s peppered throughout (Julia thinks whatever they do in the room should be “regional and not for profit”).

The piano, as soon as someone touches it, plays Cole Porter songs by itself, and the characters feel compelled to sing.

The laughs, however, don’t make up for an audience’s need for “What’s next?” Even one of the characters says what ails it: “What we need is a plot.”

Gurney said in an interview, “It’s not just a play about the theater, it’s also about the confinements of middle-class life.”

That’s a large stretch, not clearly evident on stage. As in panning for gold, one has to go through a lot of grit to even see such a glimmer.

The set, designed by Scott Heineman, shows a lavish if not rich and conservative home.

Martin Aronstein’s light design and Zoe DuFour’s costume design also put life into this WASP world.

One of Gurney’s big worries is that theater no longer draws people away from film and television. Many of his plays, such as “Love Letters,””The Dining Room” and “Later Life,” can do so. This one won’t.

The Fourth Wall

(Pasadena Playhouse; 700 seats; $ 40 top)

Production: The Pasadena Playhouse State Theatre of California Inc. in association with Theatre Corp. of America presents a comedy in two acts by A.R. Gurney; director, David Saint.

Creative: Sets, Scott Heineman; lighting, Martin Aronstein; costumes, Zoe DuFour; sound design, Jack Allayay; musical arrangements and direction, Ron Abel. Opened, reviewed March 20, 1994; runs through April 24.

Cast: With: Sam Freed, Jean De Baer, Barrie Youngfellow, Jim Fyfe.

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