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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

self-defensiveness.

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

Talley’s Folly, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $18 to $45. Runs to

December 23.


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