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Vol. LXII, No. 43
 
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
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Music/Theater

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

“A VALENTINE… A WALTZ”: Matt Friedman (Richard Schiff), 42-year-old Jewish accountant, pursues his courtship of Sally Talley (Margot White), 31-year-old independent-thinking Missouri nurse, in an old, run-down boathouse on a summer evening of 1944, in a revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” (1979), at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2.

McCarter Revives Lanford Wilson Masterpiece, “Talley’s Folly;” A “No-Holds-Barred Romantic Story” of an Unlikely Courtship

Donald Gilpin

The social contexts here are rich. It’s 1944, wartime. The setting is a run-down Victorian boathouse, where Matt, a 42-year-old Jewish accountant, and Sally, a 31-yearold independent-thinking Missouri nurse, meet by moonlight. Offstage is heard the barking of dogs at Sally’s house, where her troubled, anti-Semitic family members loom, contemptuous of both Sally and her intrusive suitor.

Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly (1979), in a revival at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2, could be about the impact of war on the home front and its economic, psychological and personal repercussions. It could be about the power of a setting (The “folly” of the title is a reference to, among other things, the architecturally extravagant boathouse where the play takes place.), particularly resonant in romantic and familial associations. The play could be about a daughter’s conflicts with her prosperous, dysfunctional family and a Jewish man, who has fled across Europe to America, dealing with the ravages and tragedies of his life and his family.

Talley’s Folly could be, and is, about all these social and psychological issues, but, more essentially, it is the simple story of a courtship — 97 minutes, real time and theatrical time, as two human beings, “eggs,” afraid of being broken or hurt again, plagued by insecurities yet drawn by love, perform the “waltz” that will bring them together.

As Thomas Hardy wrote during World War I, in his poem In Time of “The Breaking of Nations” (title quotation from The Bible, Book of Jeremiah):

Yonder a maid and her wight (man)
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.

Talley’s Folly, winner of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize, looks like a minor work. Matt and Sally’s conversation seems dwarfed by the whimsical excesses of the boathouse in which their encounter takes place, by a family drama going on at Sally’s family home not too far offstage and by the vast, troubled social background of the United States in turmoil and the world at war beyond. Though they are the only two characters, and their stumbling towards romance is the only plot, this play delivers nothing less than the oldest and most momentous drama of all: a revelation of the all-but-indescribable story of two human beings finding true love.

“Talley’s Folly” will play through November 2. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for further information.

Marshall Mason, director of the original New York production and premier interpreter of Lanford Wilson’s impressive works, which include some of the greatest American plays of the second half of the twentieth century (Balm in Gilead, The HOT L BALTIMORE, Fifth of July and many more), has staged this deeply nuanced, powerfully appealing revival of Talley’s Folly. His first wise decision was to cast the mesmerizing Richard Schiff (Emmy Award winner for The West Wing) and a feisty, winning Margot White (recently in The Farns worth Invention on Broadway), in the starring roles. (Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins played the romantic couple in the original production almost thirty years ago.)

A top-flight production team led by designers of the original Broadway production, John Lee Beatty (set) and Jennifer von Mayrhauser (costumes), along with Phil Monat (lighting) and Chuck London (sound), complement Mr. Wilson’s brilliant script and the finely tuned work of actors and director in bringing to life this magical and poetic, yet realistic, moonlit world of Talley’s Folly.

The play is a sort of pas deux, artfully choreographed by Mr. Mason and beautifully performed by the actors. Mr. Schiff’s character initially appears in the theater aisle approaching the stage, then embarks on a long monologue to introduce the play. “This should be a waltz, one-two-three, one-two-three,” he says, “a no-holds-barred romantic story.”

Tall, talkative, a little clumsy, a little rumpled in his best suit and a new tie, Mr. Schiff’s Matt readily wins over the audience. “I have many skills,” he tells Sally later in the play, and though courtship may not be one of them, he is determined to prevail in his quest to solve the “puzzle” of Sally.

Sally soon arrives and the waltz of pursuit and resistance, approach and evasion, hope and fear, begins. The dialogue is realistic, unsentimental, clever, and credible. It establishes a rhythm of conflict and connection between the two protagonists.

Matt is a performer, a comedian. His humor — employed sometimes to disarm Sally’s façade of belligerence, sometimes to allow Matt to avoid confronting his own fears and vulnerabilities — is excellent, enhancing the plot, the flow of the play, and the fascinating chemistry between the two.

“We are so much alike to be so different, aren’t we?” Matt asks Sally. Like the eggs Matt describes in another one of his stories, Sally and Matt are “careful not to bang up against each other too hard. Crack our shells, never be any use again.” But from the start, it is clear that Matt and Sally share a need, a yearning, a strong attachment, and Matt’s introduction has given us clear indications that he does not expect to be alone on his drive back to St. Louis.

Mr. Mason’s skillful direction and Mr. Beatty’s beautiful set perform their own well planned and deftly executed choreography, as the romantic duet moves around this finely detailed Victorian boathouse amidst “louvers, lattice in decorative panels, and a good deal of Gothic Revival gingerbread.” There is a gazebo stage right, a boat on the river, surrounded by weeds and water lilies at center stage, and trees and a rising moon in the background — all aesthetically captivating and utterly functional in staging the action of the play. Mr. Monat’s lighting and Mr. London’s sound complete the romantic setting for this “valentine,” as Matt describes it.

Dictionary.com defines “folly” as “the state or quality of being foolish; lack of understanding or sense. A foolish action, practice, idea, etc.; absurdity; a costly and foolish undertaking; unwise investment or expenditure. Architecture. A whimsical or extravagant structure built to serve as a conversation piece, lend interest to a view, commemorate a person or event, etc; follies, a theatrical revue.

Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly incorporates all of those disparate meanings in a beautiful celebration of the irrational pursuits and passions of romantic love, tucked away from the realities of daily life for at least 97 minutes of the most enduring, endearing human interaction. Mr. Mason, Mr. Schiff, Ms. White, and company bring the truth of that relationship to life with unforgettable poignancy and power.

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