"Breaking the fourth wall" is a theatrical term for the rare event when an actor slips out of character and interacts directly with the audience.
This sudden violation of the accepted fiction upon which the theater relies -- that we are invisibly watching real events unfold -- is a fascinating twist of perception, bringing a dash of reality to a passively observed illusion.
Buffalo native A.R. Gurney's play, "The Fourth Wall," which examines this concept, will be staged at the Kavinoky Theatre on the D'Youville College campus starting next Friday.
As the play begins, a middle-class woman named Peggy has redecorated a room of the apartment she shares with her husband, Roger. All the furniture in the room faces what the characters say is an empty wall, but which audience members know actually looks out on the auditorium where they sit.
Being in the room makes Roger feel as if he's on stage and being watched (which, of course, he is, by us). After some discussion, Peggy and Roger summon Julia, a lively friend who wants to spice up the "script," and Floyd, a young college lecturer in theater. Together, the four puzzle out whether they are in a play, and if so, what kind of play it should be.
"In one way, this play is a love letter to the theater," says David Lamb, artistic director at the Kavinoky, who is directing "The Fourth Wall." As the play develops, Christina Rausa as Peggy, Steve Cooper as Roger, Lisa Ludwig as Julia and Paul Todaro as Floyd "take bad acting to the limits," Lamb says with a chuckle.
"We do all of the cliches, all of the things you're not supposed to do," he says. "As soon as they've got a line, bad actors tend to want to move somewhere, to lean on the props. We're doing all of that deliberately and self-consciously."
The play, Lamb says, becomes "a battle between four people over what sort of play should be done." Make that four people and one player piano, which would like to have the play be a Cole Porter musical.
Lamb says Gurney (whom he praises as "an incredible craftsman -- his sense of structure and his ability with language are superb") was mulling the future of theater when he wrote "The Fourth Wall" in 1992. "He was asking 'Is there an audience for this sort of theater anymore? Should I be writing TV sitcoms, serious drama that can have an impact on people's lives, or a political drama?' " In this play, his characters examine and discuss those points of view. And finally, the fourth wall is shattered.
WHAT: "The Fourth Wall"
WHEN: Opens next Friday and runs through Feb. 4
WHERE: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
TICKETS: $12 to $32
INFO: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com