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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
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
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