The play opens with Matt Friedman (Stephen Russell) addressing the audience directly, with the house lights up driving the point home. We are to see a love story, a dance, he tells us. Russell's playful portrayal of Matt, teasing the audience and wielding the magic of stagecraft to create the perfect summer night, sets the perfect tone for a love story. As he leads us into the main section of the play, he's significantly aided in this pursuit by Janie E. Howland's picturesque set and John Cuff's subtle, effective lights.
Matt has come to the Talley home in the summer of 1944 to pursue the hand of aging daughter Sally (Marianna Bassham). Their courtship has stalled, in part because Sally's family will not accept Jewish Matt Friedman as a suitable mate, but in part because Sally is withholding a piece of herself from her beau.
Bassham presents a powerful portrayal of a woman on the verge of spinsterhood, believable and captivating, but too heavy for the play in which she appears. Russell, on the other hand, gives us a light and charming leading man, though hindered by an accent that wanders from Slavic to German to American to drive home the wandering nature of Matt's upbringing. Zahler lets the force of Bassham's characterization opposite Russel's buoyancy unbalance the play, and the misery of her character drowns out the waltz we're supposed to be dancing.
Ultimately, the play attempts to make a statement about hope in the face of terrifying times, love in a time of war. And yet, at one crucial point in the show, Matt asserts he would never bring a child into such a terrifying world. This conviction proves pivotal in his courtship of Sally, whose secret turns out to be infertility, but this bleak view of the future is left unchallenged.
By the time Sally's secret is revealed, the waltz has been bogged down to a dirge. There's no humor or happiness in the pair's recognition of a shared outlook for the future. Instead, we're left with the sense that their courtship works because they can ignore the question of whether the world is really so terrible. They're not having children, so somehow the point becomes moot. If this is what hope in the face of terrifying times looks like, I'll find my optimism elsewhere.
Talley's Folly at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, now through April 22nd. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 PM; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM; Matinees Saturday at 4:00 PM, Sunday at 3:00 PM, and Wednesday at 2:00 PM (March 29 and April 19 only). Tickets are $20 - $45. $10 Student Rush available one-half hour prior to each performance; valid student ID required. For tickets or information, call the box office at 617-585-5678 or visit www.lyricstage.com.