"The Fourth Wall" is first-rate.
The A.R. Gurney play, which had its Buffalo premiere Friday night in D'Youville College's charming Kavinoky Theater, has an intriguing premise.
A middle-aged woman named Peggy has rearranged the furniture in her living room so it all faces a large blank wall. Beyond that wall is, of course, the audience. This reference -- "breaking the fourth wall" refers to a character directly interacting with the audience -- is thus cleverly literal and figurative.
All that was clear before showtime. What was an extremely pleasant surprise was that under David Lamb's direction, this play is a marvel of comedic timing, which keeps the audience chuckling -- if not guffawing or applauding -- during its fast-paced 90 minutes.
A play written by the prolific Gurney that is so thoroughly concerned with the effects of theater on both civilization and on the audience sounds like it might be a bit abstract or dry. And Lamb, in a preperformance interview, mused that the inside jokes -- actors physically and verbally demonstrating all the worst cliches of bad acting -- might just come across as, well, bad acting.
Never fear. This cast pulls it off perfectly. The play opens with two characters onstage. One is the fabulous Lisa Ludwig, who snaps and crackles as the sassy Julia, a New York City transplant who embodies drama from the roots of her bleached-blond bob to the tips of her patent-leather stilettoes.
Peggy's husband, Roger, is portrayed by the craggily handsome Steve Cooper. He looks a bit like Martin Sheen and plays the puzzled man who feels he's always on stage with a hint of the whacky Peter Graves.
The two do everything from stride across the set, gesticulating with each word, to sitting and crossing their legs emphatically at the same instant. They are anguished, perplexed, horrified and lustful by turns, and they have to put up with poorly timed sound effects and "stage champagne" that's really ginger ale. Their dialogue sparkles, and the audience enjoyed every minute.
Christina Rausa is Peggy, an earnest woman with a gray pixie haircut and expressive face. She feels as if there could be, should be an audience behind that wall. Oh, and she's also obsessed with George W. Bush. The opening-night crowd loved her pointed swipes at him. She's getting death threats, she suspects from noncompassionate conservatives.
Paul Todaro ably plays Floyd, a professor at the local community college, who is summoned to solve their theatrical problem. Floyd brings the supercilious eye of tenure-obsessed academia, until he reveals himself as a man with a dramatic past. Or, maybe not.
As the characters begin to mention their exits and entrances, expressing desires to have scenes with each other rather than talks, the line between reality and stage work becomes muddled. And when Floyd decides that the plot should be "Joan of Arc," Peggy knows what she has to do. But will she don the armor? Or, as Roger asks with a furrowed brow, can she just wear pantyhose?
Don't have any second thoughts. Go see "The Fourth Wall."
The Fourth Wall
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
$12 to $32
829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com