Monday, March 25, 2013

Missouri Waltz: Talley’s Folly

Matt Friedman, the narrator of Talley’s Folly, explains to the audience at the top of the show that what we’re about to witness between him and Sally Tally in the dilapidated, once-extravagant boathouse on her family’s property in Lebanon, Missouri will be a waltz, as he coaxes his year-long courtship of her (which he has conducted mostly from his home in St. Louis, by letter) to a proposal of marriage. And by the end of ninety-seven intermissionless minutes he does indeed get her to say yes, but the journey turns out to be considerably rockier than he’d anticipated. Lanford Wilson’s 1979 play, set in 1944, is the tale of two people with secrets that have wounded them so ferociously that Sally, and for many years Matt (until he met Sally, on vacation, at a Lebanon dance), have preferred to stave off any hope of romance rather than reveal them and risk further heartbreak. Matt is a European-Jewish émigré in his forties who works as an accountant; his secret concerns the tragic story of his family. Sally, a nurse who tends to the war casualties at the local hospital, is a left-wing intellectual in a family of conservative family-owning bigots (they think of Matt as “the Jew” and find his politics even more dangerous than FDR’s). She hold so tight to her secret that we don’t learn it until moments before the finale, when the play turns at last into the love waltz Matt promised us it would be.

Wilson wrote three plays about the Talley family; neither of the others, 5th of July (which takes place a generation later) and Talley and Son (which takes place in the Talley house while Sally and Matt are down in the boathouse, the “folly” of the title, designed by Sally’s whimsical great-uncle Whistler). Neither of them is much good. In fact, I’m generally not a Wilson fan, but I think Talley’s Folly, of which I’ve seen many productions, is a charmer. Perhaps the only improvement I can see making to it is cutting most of Matt’s rambling opening speech, which bears the heavy influence of Tom Wingfield’s monologue at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie. (Both supply some sociopolitical background; both characters even live in St. Louis.) The moment Sally appears, though, riled up by Matt’s nerve in appearing at her family’s home after she’s been struggling to close him down, the play, small-scale as it is, doesn’t put a foot wrong. Nor does the latest production, directed by Michael Wilson at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, starring Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson, and designed by Jeff Cowie (set), David C. Woolard (costumes) and Rui Rita (lighting).

Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson

Burstein isn’t an obvious choice for the role of Matt, which was created by Judd Hirsch. Based on the work Burstein has done in musicals like South Pacific and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and even the last Broadway revival of Follies, theatergoers might think of him as a clown, a vaudevillian. But his subtle, impassioned performance as the trainer Tokio in this season’s magnificent production of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy suggested he had a range that hadn’t been tapped, and here he uses his playful showmanship as pushing-off point for a touching portrayal of a man who makes an unlikely grab for love after having sworn to himself that he would live his life without it. He’s like the hero of a Shakespearean romance, who has dragged himself through tragedy somehow and finds his life heading for the romantic ending fate seemed to have denied him; the difference is that Matt sniffs that ending in the air and throws himself at it with a foolhardy conviction that makes him irresistible. However, Matt is the role that almost always works; Sally is the trick part. She’s a stubborn Midwestern WASP whose ironic sense of humor functions as armor she’s worn for years as protection against her family, and actresses who play it often fall in the trap of making her rather chilly. (Trish Hawkins, the original Sally, did.) For years there was rumor of a revival with Cynthia Nixon in the role, and she would have been perfect – but perhaps not much better than Sarah Paulson, who is the finest Sally I’ve ever seen. She brings an elegance to the role that’s just this side of wartime glamour. Her line readings have a silken quality, and she looks luscious in the lemon-pie dress Woolard has put her in. You don’t think about the implications of that outfit until Matt, setting up to get her to be honest with him, observes, “You can chase me away or you can put on a pretty dress, but you can’t put on a pretty dress to come down here and chase me away.” That moment rings like a bell in this production, which does full justice to Wilson’s sweetheart of a play.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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