Talley’s Folly doesn’t make incredible demands on its director or stage technicians, but it requires much of the actors who play the uneasy pair at its heart, Matt Friedman and Sally Talley. It’s not just that the entire burden of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama by Lanford Wilson falls entirely on their shoulders, or that, without an intermission, they have no chance to recharge their batteries. No, one false note and the audience loses its way in what should be, in Matt's words, “a waltz…a no-holds-barred romantic story.”
In the original production, which premiered in May 1979, the middle-aged Jewish accountant from St. Louis and the 31-year-old Protestant spinster from Lebanon, Mo., were played by Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins. I never saw that show, but it’s hard to imagine those actors better than Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson, who last Sunday finished a run at the Laura Pels Theatre, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s space for small-scale productions.
Small-scale, but not small heart. All the action of the play occurs on the night of July 4, 1944, as Matt and Sally meet at the same battered Victorian boathouse (the Tally’s Folly of the title) where sparks of some kind flew the year before.
Each has a secret. Sally sizes him up quickly: “Something is goofy, isn’t it? A single man, forty-two years old.” For her part, Sally, for reasons that Matt has a tough time intuiting, seems positively hell-bent on spinsterhood. “You’re scared and I’m scared,” Matt tells her, “but we both have to realize that we’re going to deal with this before either of us leaves.”
Matt calls on all the elements of nature to assist him. He’ll need all the help he can get out here, because he’ll find so little encouragement in Sally’s family--unregenerate bigots put off by Matt’s beard, socialism and Judaism. “That man’s more dangerous than Roosevelt,” Sally’s father had declared upon meeting Matt the year before.
For all the crazy energy that particularly unnerves the Talleys, Matt is beyond their comprehension in another way: he is part of a family of Eastern European refugees from persecution. The experience has left scars on him that he only reluctantly divulges.
The only other performance I had ever caught of Burstein’s was his Tony-nominated turn as Buddy in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies a few years ago. Now, with this (as well as what is supposed to be a marvelous supporting role in Lincoln Center’s revival of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy), he will definitely be on my radar screen of stage talent.
Paulson, also a New York stage veteran (Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, The Glass Menagerie, opposite Jessica Lange), might be better known to a wider audience for appearing in Ryan Murphy’s miniseries American Horror Story and American Horror Story: Asylum. She had no worries here, however, about a property that would haunt her listeners’ dreams. Slowly, she revealed the deep wound—psychic as much as physical –that afflicts Sally, as well as the irrepressible spark that will allow her to stay open to Matt, despite of her deep-seated fears and suspicions.
Care is not only required of the actors who play Matt and Sally but also of those behind the scenes who must decide what reflects the essential truth of the characters.As potential lost souls--outsiders who seek happiness apart, in a society of their own choosing—Matt and Sally tremendously appealed to Wilson, a gay man who spent at least the early part of his adulthood alienated from much of American society. (He even continued the saga of their family in Fiftb of July and Talley and Son.)
Expertly guiding Burstein and Paulson through all this was director Michael Wilson (no relation to the late playwright). At the Roundabout, he’s been tasked with some problematic vintage plays (John Van Druten’s Old Acquaintance and Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore). This time around, he got a safer, sweeter property, a theatrical Valentine’s Day card that, for its minimal technical requirements and abundant sympathy for its last-chance lovers, seems well on its way to becoming a hardy perennial of regional playhouses.