By David Sheward
A common thread among America’s greatest playwrights is a compassionate view of our dreamers and outcasts. Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Lanford Wilson definitely belong in this class of poetic realists.
In recent revivals, Broadway audiences have seen the sexual misfits of Williams’ Gothic Deep South (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Inge’s repressed Midwest (Picnic) howl out their frustrations. Now the Roundabout Theatre Company gives us Wilson’s sunnier but no less complex portrait of a conflicted nation through a seemingly simple love story in a captivating production at the Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theater. His Talley’s Folly was a huge hit for his home-base theater company, the dearly missed Circle Repertory Theatre, winning a Pulitzer Prize and running on and Off-Broadway in 1979 and ’80. You could argue that a large measure of the play’s initial success was due to the lead performance of Judd Hirsch, the star of a popular TV show (Taxi), but Michael Wilson’s sterling staging proves there is more to this enchanting valentine than juicy acting opportunities.
The setting is a ruined boathouse beautifully designed by Jeff Cowie and poetically lit by Rui Rita. It’s July 4, 1944, and Jewish-European immigrant Matt Friedman is preparing to propose to Sally Talley, the 30-ish daughter of a prominent family in a small Missouri town. (The Talleys are also featured in Lanford Wilson’s other exquisite plays Talley and Son and Fifth of July.) Both are lonely souls and don’t quite fit into the traditional American template of picket fences, apple pie, and nuclear families in a soon-to-be post-atomic age. Matt lost his entire family when he was a child, and Sally is the outcast of the Talleys-not only for her outspoken progressive views but also for an illness that has rendered her barren. These two reach out to each other in a gentle push-pull mating dance of attraction and fear. Matt tells us the play is a waltz, and that’s just how Michael Wilson directs it: slow, elegant, and lilting.
Danny Burstein is marvelous as the talkative Matt Friedman, slyly gaining the audience’s confidence in direct address, charming us and Sally with self-deprecating wit and unabashed sentiment. Sarah Paulson has the less showy role of Sally and therefore the greater acting challenge. She does not speak directly to us and must display Sally’s insecurities through subtle furtive side glances and halting speech. But both are proficient at hiding their characters’ fearful, bruised interiors with funny rapid patter and bravura bluster. When their defenses are finally down, we see these actors expose the quivering loners with a compassion equal to that of the playwright.
March 12, 2012
Originally Published on March 3, 2013
Mar. 5-May 5. Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $71-81. (212) 719-1300.
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