Talley's Folly

Talley's Folly, Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize play (1980), is receiving a fine revival at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre; if, like me, you've not seen this work on stage before, this is a great opportunity to catch up with it. Michael Wilson's production is workmanlike in every way and while the experience is not as magical or emotionally involving as I would have hoped, it is absolutely compelling and engaging theater that I can unreservedly recommend.

The play unfolds in an old boathouse on the Talley place in Lebanon, Missouri on July 4th, 1944. Here we find Matt Friedman, a middle-aged Jewish accountant who lives and works in the much larger city of St. Louis (some 200 miles to the northeast), determined to close a deal with Sally Talley, the 31-year-old daughter of one of the town's richest families (they run a clothing factory that has benefited greatly from government contracts to make military uniforms; as Matt reminds us at the start of the play, the country is in the midst of World War II).

Matt and Sally have a bit of history together that, apparently, mostly unfolded right here in this boathouse, a summer ago. They also have history separately, burdens from earlier in their lives that weigh their hearts down and have erected barriers around them; Matt recounts an anecdote about an acquaintance who thinks people are like eggs, their shells providing thin but necessary protection from those nearby. In the play's 97 minutes, Matt means to break through Sally's shell—and allow her to pierce his as well—and get her to agree to marry him. (If you're familiar with Wilson's Fifth of July, written before this but taking place 30 years later, you know whether he succeeds or not.)

It's a sweet, thoughtful, highly articulate study of two outsiders who come to realize that they may be soulmates. Wilson's script is rich, funny, and filled with humanist details that give the romantic banter heft: one of the things that Matt and Sally have in common is a deep concern for the progress of human affairs, and their conversation frequently touches on matters political, historical, economic, or social; but there's a naturalness and lightness that keeps this from ever feeling polemical or even Shavian. The play works because we like and care about these two and want to know about them and for them to find the happiness that has thus far eluded them in life.

Danny Burstein takes what feels like the "star role" of Matt and runs with it; it's a good fit for his ebullient stage persona and lets him clown around on ice skates, deliver a comically poor impersonation of Bogart, and also show us the sad serious fellow underneath. I love seeing Burstein in a leading role in a major play, but I'd love even better seeing him in the lead in something new; his Broadway credits in the program include roles in 9 revivals and only 4 new shows (all musicals).

Sarah Paulson has what to my mind is the more interesting role, and I felt she inhabited Sally quite completely. Sally seems to me to be the one Wilson knew better; the history he gives Matt fits precisely within our stereotyped idea of an accented European Jew in America in the '40s, while the one provided Sally is surprising and starkly authentic.

My companion observed, quite rightly, that there's little chemistry between Burstein and Paulson, and that's unfortunate; I wanted to feel their connection rather than just intellectually accept it.

I also wished for a less naturalistic set. Jeff Cowie has built a detailed and stage- and eye-filling re-creation of a decaying boathouse, one that leaves almost nothing to the imagination. Yet Wilson has Matt break the fourth wall as soon as he arrives on stage; it seemed to me that a bit more reliance on the magical combination of theatricality and audience imagination might fit this play better than the vividly realized environment that's been provided.

But all this said, Roundabout has certainly given us a meritorious rendition of a play that's worth seeing.