In one of the most engaging monologues ever written as a preamble to the body of a play, the antagonist, Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant from St. Louis, reminds us more than once; it is a play in 3/4 time. Friedman, as played by an extraordinarily ingratiating Richard Schiff, repeats, for the presumed latecomers, his words but in fast forward. It’s a winning and playful decoy that sets the mood and the tone for one of the most disarming plays in contemporary dramatic literature. Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Talley’s Folly,” playing now at McCarter, is short — exactly 97 minutes without an intermission — but it may also be the longest waltz ever composed. There is no music, however, except for the occasional intrusion of a distant band concert.
The time is July 4, 1944. Set on the property of the Talley’s ancestral home in Lebanon, Missouri, the play is a romantic duet for Schiff and Margot White, who plays Sally Talley, the play’s only other character. Together they bring Wilson’s lyrical song of love to life. Using a special blend of ethnic and colloquial humor, Wilson captures the heart and mind, as his two people 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 one sees upon entering the auditorium of the McCarter’s Matthews Theater is the boathouse setting designed by John Lee Beatty. Beatty is recreating the awesome (and then some) setting he designed for the original Circle Repertory Company production in 1979. It’s simply breathtaking. With the house lights fully on, we can see the shell of a warped rowboat at rest within the rotting skeleton of the vine-encroaching boathouse and gazebo — victims of neglect. Cattails and willows compete for dominance around the fantastical structure at the water’s edge. Through the chipped gingerbread, we can see just enough of a glowing sunset and eventually, as the evening progresses, the rising of the moon and twinkling stars. Lighting designer Phil Monat deserves kudos for these atmospherics.
Matt arrives on the scene, entering from the auditorium, 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 as to 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. “Talley’s Folly” does. Matt can cue in 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.
White, who was most recently seen on Broadway in “The Farnsworth Invention,” is delightful as Sally Talley, a nurse’s aid. A spinster (at the ripe old age of 31) who has become a disgrace to the Talley family, Sally clings to the artifacts around her for comfort. Feeling a little self-conscious in the pretty pink print frock she has recently put on, Sally is a bundle of anxiety and insecurity. White shows us a Sally that is, nevertheless, bold and deliberate in her self-defensiveness. At first, we feel Sally is no match for Matt, who can dramatize and overdramatize his feelings with words Sally never heard before. But Sally has a strength that is finally tapped by this Galahad in a drab business suit enhanced by a garish red necktie. Wildly funny in his clumsily clownish attempt to ice skate on the wooden planks of the dock, Matt, nevertheless, assumes a quiet poignancy as he reveals to Sally his traumatic childhood fleeing the Nazis in Europe. Replete with improvisations and jokes, Matt is a vaudevillian at heart and with a heart that he wants to give to Sally.
While Schiff is probably best known for his Emmy Award-winning role on the TV series “The West Wing,” he scored with audiences two years ago as the impassioned librarian in the acclaimed one-man drama “Under the Lintel” at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. His performance in “Talley’s Folly,” as the New York/ middle-European accented, bearded Jew in a land of shotgun-toting Gentiles, is warm, honest, and delightfully nuanced. White is quite beguiling despite the feisty facade she maintains in the face of a major life change.
These lovingly combative people intimately involve us not only in their own rekindled relationship, but also by making 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. One can only feel privileged that this production rejoins the playwright with its original director Marshall W. Mason. Mason moves his duo through a variety of choreographed action as lilting as a waltz and with the freshness that a director might bring to a brand new play.
“Talley’s Folly” is the first play in a trilogy that includes “The Fifth of July” and “A Tale Told” (later revised and renamed “Talley & Son). Just think how rewarding it would be to see the other two plays performed in the coming seasons and then perhaps played in repertory. Is anybody listening?
“Talley’s Folly,” through Sunday, November 2, McCarter Theater, 91 University Avenue, Princeton. $15 to $55. 609-258-2787.