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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Fifth of July’

If playwright Lanford Wilson were a screenwriter, he

would probably have called "Fifth of July," his sequel to

"Talley’s Folly" (and better than its original), "Tally

II." I’m glad he didn’t.

"Fifth of July" is more than a sequel. It is an intriguing

and penetrating play that needs no preamble for us to recognize its

worth as an important American play. A quarter of century after its

premiere, its theme remains painfully topical.

Nor does this play require our familiarity with "Talley’s Folly"

(although audiences who saw the excellent production at the George

Street Playhouse will have an advantage) for us to quickly become

involved with the Talley family. This second play — the centerpiece

of a trilogy about the Missouri Talleys — is in the midst of a

Wilson retrospective at the Signature Theater Company.

The theater world found much to praise in "Talley’s Folly,"

an ever so delicate two-character courtship in 3/4 time between a

Jewish lawyer from New York and a Midwestern debutante. "Fifth

of July" is about as far removed in scope and dimension from "Folly"

as the playwright could get. There is boldness in Wilson’s cramming

every ideal and aspiration for a homogeneous democracy into his two-and-one-half

hour play. He stuffs his characters and his play with an abundance

of rich and perplexing dichotomies.

The introduction of a character, whose preoccupation is with botany,

may serve as a metaphor as the author helps us see how humans, like

plants, can be divided into classes, both real and unreal, coexisting

peacefully. Wilson’s humanitarian theme and his unquestionable gift

for complex character development and earthy dialogue make "Fifth

of July" a challenge that director Jo Bonney (she recently directed

Eric Bogosian’s "Humpty Dumpty" at McCarter) meets with mostly

excellent results. Any director would have his hands full bringing

the play’s long expository first act into focus.

Despite one lead actor not quite up to the demands of the character,

Bonney has wisely placed enough of the emphasis on the passion and

poignant underpinnings of the other characters to gracefully offset

this problem. At the center are Kenny (Robert Sean Leonard), a paraplegic

Vietnam hero and his male lover Jed (Michael Gladis), a botanist who

is helping to rebuild and replant the family homestead.

Set 33 years after "Talley’s Folly," the colorful assortment

of Talley clan members who meet at the farm represent the gamut of

misplaced Americana. Kenny has decided to sell the family farm to

two ex-college friends, Gwen (Parker Posey), a wealthy drugged-out

rock singer, and John (David Harbour), her cynical, calculating husband.

The sale of the house becomes a catalyst for the family to rustle

up old skeletons.

Shirley (Sarah Lord), the illegitimate 13-year-old niece, her mother,

and Kenny’s sister June Talley (Jessalyn Gilsig) and the family matriarch

Sally Talley (Pamela Payton-Wright), add sparks to the family’s day

after Independence Day fireworks, and souls are bared in deliciously

unexpurgated fashion.

What is refreshing is that no one is a villain. Each character becomes

renewed through this meeting of the clan and is richer for it. This

is an upbeat play in which characters with enormous problems learn

to face tomorrow with strength based on adversity. When the widow

Sally makes a decision (which I won’t disclose), we are instantly

made aware of life’s thread of continuity.

A touching relationship exists between Ken and Jed.

Caring for his crippled lover with matter-of-fact dispatch, Gladis

is an actor who knows to demonstrate how intense love and passion

can be both understated and powerful. In yet another of his many extraordinarily

impassioned portrayals, Leonard makes us painfully aware of Kenny’s

bitterness and own death wish. Watching him slowly bring himself out

of being a pathetic leg-less victim of the Vietnam War into a survivor

and schoolteacher with something to live for, is an emotional experience

made even more powerful by this first-rate actor.

Parker Posey, who hasn’t met the challenge in anything I’ve seen her

in so far on stage or screen, gets only passable results as the frenetic,

jaded, and drug-using Gwen. Perhaps the role demands more than can

be conveyed by this actor. Harbour was devilishly charismatic as he

tried to wheel and deal the farm into a recording studio for his wife.

Gilsig was convincing as the over-the-hill radical sister as was Lord

as her precocious child. Both warm and austere, Wright could have

been the lovely Sally of 33 years ago. Richard Hoover’s setting of

the interior and exterior of the Tally home offers an eye-full of

an era on the wane. Three stars. You won’t be disappointed.

— Simon Saltzman

Fifth of July, Signature Theater Company’s Peter Norton

Space, 555 West 42 Street, New York, 212-244-7529. $55. Runs through

March 9.


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