The ebullient actor has been seen most frequently in recent years playing men at odds with the societies in which they find themselves, whether the (relatively) gentle trainer in this season's Golden Boy, the perennially put-upon Buddy in Follies, or the lovably scheming Luther Billis in South Pacific. And, sure enough, Matt fits right into this group: a European Jew returning to the Missouri farm where he pursued the resolutely white and deceptively innocent Sally Talley (Sarah Paulson) to some success the year before.
Seeing Burstein bubble and float about the stage, decked out by set designer Jeff Cowie as a deconstructed version of the abandoned boathouse in which the new tryst is to take place, you can't help but wonder why anyone would consider Matt a threat. Perhaps he has the questionable liberal politics (which, by the way, Sally shares) and an even murkier past. But he's as likable and low-key as a tweed-wearing college professor, a weekend librarian, or a milquetoast accountant (the last of which he actually is) — hardly the type who could present any kind of threat to the Old South aristocracy that Sally's family represents. (I missed the role's originator, Judd Hirsch, but it's easy to imagine him possessing much sharper edges.)
That does, however, add an extra undercurrent of urgency to the evening, which Michael Wilson has directed with exquisite care. As Matt works to break through Sally's defenses, and as both struggle to maintain the secrets that protect them from true intimacy, it becomes increasingly clear how someone so approachable, and so likeable, could be the most subversive force a conservative Southern family might have been able to encounter in the early years of the 20th century.
Wilson's play, the second part of the trilogy that also includes Fifth of July (set some three decades later than Talley's Folly) and Talley & Son (set the same night, but from the family's point of view), invites such interpretations and distillations, and satisfies regardless of how much they're highlighted. (Even taken as a simple love tale, the play is deeply engaging.) All it asks is that the central couple be solid together, and Matt, whom we repay for his duties as guide by being his confidant, be stronger still. So there's no problem, from any angle, with Burstein and Wilson ripping through seven decades of progress to reveal, before our eyes, just how hard the softest of prejudices once was.
Otherwise, there's nothing hard about Burstein's portrayal, which is as joyous and effortless a turn as the New York stage has seen in the past year. He wins you over from the first scene, popping onto the stage and nudging down the fourth wall with a surfeit of charm he never lets flag. Whether providing a high-speed recap (for latecomers, he informs us), granting us a tour of the dilapidated folly, or even donning ice skates to symbolize the thin surface on which he's constantly walking, Burstein's Matt is a gregarious presence that feels at once familiar and unexpected: the kind of person who should always exist, but usually doesn't.
The story is a waltz, Matt tells us, and his partner is no slouch. At times, Paulson comes across as overly diffident, and there are times you're sure that Sally's cool demeanor will melt in the face of Matt's heat; have Sally's "old maid" tendencies truly gotten the better of her? But no: By the end of the play, when all of Sally's darkest recesses are opened and laid bare, the breadth of Paulson's intensity is on full view. Her Sally is on guard because she's long had to be, and once that requirement is removed, she is, in ease of body, voice, and heart, every way the ideal match for Matt. Paulson's transformation is the theatrical equivalent of star stuff.
Burstein works no such isolated magic. His gifts are on constant display the entire time, and he runs at full speed through each of the painstakingly counted 97 minutes Talley's Folly runs. The actor doesn't develop Matt so much as demonstrate him, buffing every nuance of love and languishing to a bewitching gleam. Those craving a more carefully articulated, "actorly" journey might be disappointed in the all-or-nothing approach Burstein takes. But the dividends it pays, both while you're watching him and when you can't stop thinking about him for hours after you leave the theatre, are rich enough to be worth this — or any other — risk.