March 9, 2013

"Talley's Folly" is a Serious Treat

Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly is a small play in almost every way.  It’s a two-hander and all the action takes place on a single set, a rundown boathouse near a farm in Lebanon, Mo., a month after D-Day. The plot is slight: a 42-year-old Jewish accountant named Matt ardently woos a Protestant spinster named Sally who is a decade younger and a lot more wary about the idea of romance. The whole thing unfolds, as Matt tells the audience at the beginning of the play, in just 97 minutes. And yet, Talley’s Folly won the Pulitzer Prize.

The revival that opened this week at the Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels Theatre shows why this little play won that big prize. It’s not just that Wilson tells his tale in language that is simultaneously plainspoken (the way we are) and poetic (the way we yearn to be) but that he has created a love story that speaks to the heart of anyone who has ever believed him or herself to be unlovable. And who hasn't, at some time, felt that?

As luck would have it, my friend Phil and I had tickets for the original 1980 Broadway production (it transferred after a run at Circle Rep) on the very day that the play won the Pulitzer. The performances by Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins had already drawn lavish praise (“Mr. Hirsch’s performance is surely one of the finest of this season, last season, any season,” declared Walter Kerr in his review for the Times) and so Phil and I were feeling pretty smug about seeing the show.  But then our luck ran out.

Two women with large shopping bags sat right in front of us and began talking animatedly, which they continued to do throughout much of the performance, despite Phil’s polite requests that they quiet down.  I was so mad at, and distracted by, them that even when they finally did shut up, I couldn’t focus on the play.  So I was eager for this chance to see it again. And now I’m really glad that I got to see this production of it.

For director Michael Wilson doesn’t do anything fussy.  He simply trusts the play and the two wonderful actors that bring Matt and Sally to life.

Danny Burstein has been on a roll these past couple of years with his sensational performance as the lovelorn Buddy in last season’s revival of Follies and his scene-stealing turn as the loyal boxing trainer Tokio in Lincoln Center Theatre’s recent revival of Golden Boy (click here to read a piece about him). But he's never been better than he is as Matt, the unlikely suitor who, against the odds, decides to take a chance on love. Indeed, Burstein is so winning that he earns the affection of the audience as soon as he walks onstage.

Sarah Paulson has recently gained a following with her role on the cable TV show “American Horror Story” (click here to read a piece about her) but she, too, is an accomplished stage vet and she, too, has never been better. Sally’s role is less flashy than Matt’s; she’s the sensible yin to his exuberant yang.  And yet, it is gratifying to watch as Paulson strips away the defensive layers and allows Sally to open up to the possibility that someone might love her even if she isn’t perfect.

The production isn’t perfect either. Jeff Cowie, perhaps trying too hard to avoid copying the Tony-award winning set John Lee Beatty did for the original production, has created an overly prissy boathouse.  And I think costume designer David C. Woolard erred with Sally’s dress. Paulson looks lovely in it but it but it might have served the play better had she looked a little less so.

But these are nitpicks. Talley's Folly is a serious treat and serious theater lovers should make every effort to see it.

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