Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Joyous Revival of 'Talley's Folly' to Warm the Heart on a Cold Winter's Day

What a lovely Valentine’s Day gift the Roundabout Theatre Company has given us with its tender and emotionally rewarding revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1979 gem-of-the-heart, Talley’s Folly, now in previews at the Laura Pels under the delicately balanced direction of Michael Wilson.

It’s not hard to see why Matt Friedman, played here by Danny Burstein with a complicated mix of chutzpah and underlying schlubiness, has set his cap for Sally Talley.  As richly brought to life by a marvelous Sarah Paulson,  Sally is his equal in every way, the only woman in his 42 years who has captured his heart, despite the minor inconvenience of having shown no hint of interest in doing so.  

Matt and Sally are an unlikely pair.  Neither eHarmony nor JDate would think to bring them together, and it is a tribute to the playwright’s skills that, even though we know this story must have its happy ending (Matt assures of this in a prologue addressed directly to the audience), we remain unsure until the very end.  For though Matt—as narrator—draws us into the story as if embarking on a fairy tale, he and Sally are as real as two humans ever to emerge from a playwright’s imagination.

The tale unfolds on the evening of July 4, 1944 and takes place in a boathouse on the Talley family property in Lebanon, Missouri.  The boathouse is the literal “folly,” of the title, a folly being a fanciful structure meant to suggest a romantic old ruin, lovingly created for this production by set designer Jeff Cowie. 

Matt has come from St. Louis to convince Sally, with whom he had a brief romantic fling the previous year, to run off with him.  The distance from St. Louis to Lebanon is under 200 miles as the crow flies, but these two places are truly world’s apart.  Matt lives in a city where he can fit in comfortably as a Jewish immigrant accountant with socialist sympathies.  In Lebanon, though, he stands out like a sore thumb, a “traitor and an infidel,” as he puts it.

Sally, on the other hand, has grown up in a well-situated conservative Protestant family.  She carries a heavy burden of expectations that would make it unlikely that she would get together with someone like Matt, who, in addition to the obvious, is also 11 years her senior, and whose very presence has led Sally’s brother to chase him from the house with a shotgun.    

The audience’s joy of watching these two play off one another is in seeing the gradual peeling away of surface expectations.  Life has left both of them very wary and attuned to how best to navigate their way through the world with a careful projection of an image.  Matt hides behind his humor and charm; Sally hides behind her sense of dignity and professionalism (she is well regarded for her work as a nurse’s aide).   

It is Sally who eggs Matt into revealing his painful family history, which he does in his inevitable story-telling fashion. But the story he tells--one that is quite touching—unexpectedly triggers a strong negative response in Sally.  She doesn’t buy a word of it and believes she is being manipulated, something she will not countenance. 

In due time, we come to understand her reaction, and by the end, Matt and Sally have come to understand one another, and their love is solidified.  But as much as we appreciate our happy ending, Mr. Wilson’s great skill as a playwright is in painting complete portraits of Matt and Sally—and even of the members of their respective families whom we have come to know without having ever met them.

Issues of war, bigotry, unionism, and the constricted role of women are all addressed over the course of a seamless evening.  So, yes, this is a wonderfully romantic story, but there is not a moment of schlock or falseness in it. Talley's Folly is a love story for grown-ups and a Valentine to cherish.

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