Entertainment :: Theatre

Talley’s Folly

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Wednesday Mar 6, 2013
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Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson
Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson   (Source:Joan Marcus)

Lanford Wilson’s comedy-drama "Talley’s Folly" is a two-hander that’s simple to stage and present. Sam Shepard’s melodrama "Fool For Love" is a three-character piece that’s also simple to stage and present.

The first was produced in 1980. Although hokey and manipulative, it’s funny, touching and memorable. The second was first produced in 1983. It’s not only hokey and manipulative but idiotic, implausible, condescending and schlocky.

Yet not a year goes by in New York when we don’t get another production of "Fool For Love," while "Talley’s Folly" is rarely revived.

Why? If you want to know why this is, stop by the Laura Pels Theatre and see the superlative revival of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning show, directed by Michael Wilson and starring Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson that just opened.

"Talley’s Folly" can’t be performed by average actors whose lives revolve around their efforts to delude themselves into thinking they have talent. "Fool For Love," on the other hand, is the perfect vehicle for every bad actor on earth that has heard of The Method. Since its characters have no weight, depth or specificity and are little more than preposterous grotesques, any third-rate actor can play them, and because its scenes offer factitious moments of stagey pulp intensity he can believe in performing them that what he is doing is meaningful and grand, proof of his otherwise absent talent.

There are no such tricks by which an actor can hide when playing either of the roles in "Talley’s Folly." The male lead must be tremendously engaging, vital and clever. He must know how to tell a joke, and he must be able to really, really listen. He must have charm and romantic vulnerability, and he must persuade the audience that he is Matt Friedman: a Jewish accountant immigrant in the mid-west in 1944 with a dark secret.

And that’s the easier role!

Burstein is terrific, and Paulson may be even better. He’s warm, ingratiating, funny and lively...she’s able to convey the sensitivity of Hilary Swank, the intelligence of Julianne Moore and the virtuous romantic glamour of Deborah Kerr.

Much harder is the part of Sally Talley. The actress who wishes to undertake the role must have rectitude, wit, sex appeal and vulnerability, and she has to play straight and really, really listen. Plus, she has to convince the crowd that she actually is a high-born, Midwestern singleton woman working as a nurse’s aide at a local hospital past the age of 30 during the Second World War with her own dark secret.

It isn’t something just anyone can tackle, and the task is made harder still by comparison as the leads are competing with the memories of the young Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins, the pair who took on the leads in the play’s original Broadway incarnation.

I did not see that production, though I can say that Hirsch was both much better looking and far more virile than Burstein is. Granted that, I would guess that staging had more sexual undercurrents propelling it forward.

But Burstein is terrific, and Paulson may be even better. He’s warm, ingratiating, funny and lively -- an adorable puppy that’s been kicked around far too much. She’s able to convey the sensitivity of Hilary Swank, the intelligence of Julianne Moore and the virtuous romantic glamour of Deborah Kerr.

The play’s story is set on the Fourth of July, 1944 in a small Missouri town, and it revolves around Friedman’s attempts to rekindle a brief romance with Talley, who at 31 is already looked upon in her town as an old maid. She has been avoiding his letters and messages for months, and she is actively hostile upon finding him waiting for her in an old boathouse that her rich grandfather built upon a local bluff. Appearing before him in a fetching new yellow summer dress, she is either trying to make herself look appealing or just anticipating the coming of the town’s holiday parade.

The whole drama of the intermissionless 97-minute play revolves around the question of why she is in her yellow dress yet so doggedly antagonistic to her suitor, whom she so obviously likes. Lanford Wilson managed to make this conundrum an involving one because of his remarkable ability to capture his characters in their speech and manners and his skill in revealing his somewhat purple and unlikely tale.

But, purple though it may be, the audience I saw it with laughed readily, cried easily and applauded wildly at the end.

What else would you expect though with such a play and such actors working under such a gifted director as Michael Wilson?

"Talley’s Folly" is running through May 5 at the Laura Pels Theatre at 111 West 46th Street. For tickets or information, call 212-719-1300 or go to http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Talley-s-Folly.aspx

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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