The revival of the late Lanford Wilson’s gloriously romantic play Talley’s Folly feels like a classic. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play was first performed in 1979 but it is no less appealing now than it was then, especially in the hands of Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson, who give truly passionate performances.
At the end of the World War II, a middle-aged lover returns to an ornate boathouse on the banks of a river in Lebanon, Missouri, where a year earlier he met the daughter of the man who lives in the big house on the same patch of land and fell madly in love. Since then she has pushed him away, but now he hopes to drum up the courage to ask for her hand. As the play opens, the course of true love is not running smoothly for Matt Friedman. His comic introduction to the play, including an announcement that it will be exactly ninety-seven minutes long with no intermission, belies the anxiety he harbors that the object of his love Sally Talley will irrevocably reject him. She meanwhile is struggling with her desire for love and happiness against her conservative Midwestern family’s horror that she is stepping out with a Jew.
Matt says the evening will be a “waltz” and that is exactly what ensues as the couple dance around the issues that are keeping them apart. In fact, both are outsiders with secrets in their past that they hesitate to share. Matt avoids talking about his childhood in Europe during World War I while Sally has a penchant for liberal views that have earned her the opprobrium of the local community.
The boathouse, the rustic, rotting folly of the title, is beautifully rendered by Jeff Cowie. Its broken shutters and gingerbread curlicues make it almost a third character in the play. It is Sally’s secret retreat from her family home and a fitting setting for Matt’s overtures. But it also symbolizes what Sally must let go if she follows her instincts and accepts Matt’s proposal.
Danny Burstein as Matt is all blustering-bumbling Jewish mensch, by turn endearing and maddeningly evasive. In a shambolic suit and glasses he rambles vigorously about the stage. But Burstein’s lovesick Matt exudes so much warmth it’s enough to keep the audience from shivering in the theatre, which is kept at an inexplicably frigid temperature. Sarah Paulson, in contrast, embodies an old-world self-restraint that seems wholly honorable and adorable in this age of baring all and reality TV. Her subtle portrayal of a not-so-young spinster yearning for love is mesmerizing. You can see Sally’s temptation to fall into Matt’s arms as smiles flit unwilling across her face and desire fills her eyes. Her shimmering yellow silk dress seems almost too perfect until we discover late in the play that it’s a brand new outfit.
As the lovers edge closer together there are plenty of laughs and more than a few slapstick moments. When Sally reminds Matt that her sister-in-law is called Olive he replies, “ I knew she was on a relish tray.” But there is also plenty of anguish as the two tease out each other’s secrets.
As they begin to break down, Matt compares people to eggs because they fear if they are truthful they will crack. “We all have a Humpty Dumpty complex,” he asserts.
There are very few cracks however in this sparkling production that brings this charming play back to full-bodied life.