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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 12,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `Talley’s Folly’
Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning play
"Talley’s Folly" is short — exactly 97 minutes without an
intermission — but it may be the longest waltz ever composed.
There is no music, however, except for the occasional intrusion of
a band concert heard across the waters of the Talley ancestral home
in Lebanon, Missouri. But, as the play’s antagonist Matt Friedman,
a Jewish accountant from St. Louis reminds us more than once; it is
a play in 3/4 time. It is also a romantic duet for Julia Gibson and
Mark Nelson, two fine actors, who bring Wilson’s lovely and lyrical
song of love to life. Using a special blend of ethnic and colloquial
humor, Wilson captures the heart and mind, as his two characters
metaphorically voyage beyond the confines of a dilapidated Victorian
boathouse into a wondrous and enchanted reality that is as inspiring
as it is entertaining.
The first thing you see on entering the playhouse is the play’s
boathouse setting. With the house lights fully on, we can see a warped
rowboat resting on a murky lake whose banks are defined by cattails.
Behind it, a faded, forlorn-looking and crumbling Victorian boathouse
and gazebo are victims of neglect. The encroaching vines and willows
are busily competing for dominance with the chipped gewgaws, unhinged
gingerbread, louvers, and latticework. Although some forlorn looking
forsythia climbing up the sides of the rotting wooden structures and
a crimson-hued sunset are the only hints of color, designer Ted
Simpson’s masterful setting is extraordinarily beautiful.
Matt arrives on the scene even before the lights dim and talks to
us. He wants to make it quite clear that we not forget we are in a
theater, a completely artificial environment. As a genial host would
make his visitors comfortable in his home, so Matt makes us settle
back in our seats in this manufactured but convivial atmosphere. He
is soon confiding in us why he has returned to woo and win a certain
woman with whom he has had an earlier fling.
Any modern play that can begin with "Once upon a time" better
live up to that pretension. And "Talley’s Folly" does. Matt
can summon the proper sound effects on command: a band plays; a dog
barks; even the moonlight responds to his will.
A touching and completely believable romance is now played against
this fairy tale setting. The magic of believing is proved in Wilson’s
warm and compassionate and always intelligent writing. Just as in
the beginning when we are gently led out of the mundane into the rare,
the end of the play continues to work the charm of its spell well
beyond the confines of the theater. Fantasy and reality mix rather
well when the author believes they can through characters that are
as genuine as the person sitting next to you.
Gibson is Sally Talley, a slightly blowsy nurses’ aid and repressed
black sheep of the Talley family. Almost clinging to the artifacts
around her for comfort, as well as feeling a little self-conscious
in the pretty print frock she wears, Gibson is a bundle of
insecurities. She is, nevertheless, bold and deliberate in her
At first, we feel she is no match for Nelson’s Matt, who can dramatize
and over-dramatize his feelings with words Sally never even heard
before. But Sally has a strength that is finally tapped by this
Galahad in a stripped business suit. Wildly funny in his clumsily
clownish attempt to ice skate on the wooden planks of the dock, Matt
is almost human and poignant as he reveals to Sally his traumatic
childhood fleeing the Nazis in Europe. Replete with improvisations and
jokes, Matt is a vaudevillian at heart.
While Nelson’s direction of "The Seagull" at the George Street
Playhouse and "June Moon," at McCarter Theater met with
acclaim, audiences have also been pleased with his acting. As the New
York-accented, bespectacled and bearded Jew in a land of shotgun
toting Gentiles, Nelson is excellent, warm and winning. Although at
first I had trouble finding a trace of vulnerability in Gibson’s
performance, I was eventually moved by her feisty caution in the face
of a major life change.
These lovingly combative people intimately involve us, not only in
their own rekindled relationship, but they make us care about the
lives of people not even seen on stage. When a play is as deceptively
small scaled as this, so well written and performed, the direction
could almost be inadvertently taken for granted. Director Ted Sod,
who is making this play his farewell assignment at George Street,
moves his duo through a variety of choreographed action as lilting
as a waltz. This 1-2-3, 1-2-3 tempo is joyously maintained as we watch
one of the major delights of this theater season.
"Talley’s Folly" is the first part of a Wilson trilogy that
includes "The Fifth of July" and "A Tale Told." Just
think how rewarding it would be to see the other two plays performed
in repertory in the coming season. What do you say?
— Simon Saltzman
Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $18 to $45. Runs to
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