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Talley's Folly: 1980 Pulitzer Prize Play Retains its Warmth and Wisdom

Also see Bob's review of Apple

Richard Schiff and Margot White
On stage at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre) is a felicitous revival of Lanford Wilson's 1979 Pulitzer Prize play, Talley's Folly. Reunited for this production are director Marshall W. Mason, set designer John Lee Beatty and costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser performing the tasks which they performed for the original Circle Repertory production in 1979, and its 1980 transfer to Broadway. It is a gentle waltz for two actors, and much more.

As we enter the theatre, we are greeted by the sight of a huge phantasmagoria of a set which more than befits the demands of the unstinting description for it provided by author Lanford Wilson in the play's published text. Although at first glance, the setting looks like a magnificent, decaying gazebo, it is of "a Victorian boathouse constructed of louvers, lattice in decorative panels, and a good deal of Gothic Revival gingerbread ... walls have faded to a pale gray. The boathouse is covered by a ... canopy of maple and surrounded by waist-high weeds and the ... limbs of a weeping willow" and on.

The house lights remain up as Matt Friedman, who is portrayed by Richard Schiff, appears at the foot of the stage. Friedman is a 42-year-old Jewish accountant from St. Louis, who as a youth fled pre-Holocaust, European anti-Semitism. In his German-Jewish accent, Friedman speaks directly to the audience. "They tell me that we have ninety-seven minutes here tonight—without intermission". As it turns out, tonight is both here and now and the evening of July 4th, 1944, and we are in both the McCarter Theatre and on the Talley place, a farm near Lebanon, Missouri. More precisely, smack dab in the lake onto which the boathouse is built.

Friedman adds that the impressive set and additional stagecraft (lighting, sounds and music) are needed to create the romantic ambiance he needs to successfully complete his evening's mission, which is the wooing and winning of the heart of Sally Talley (Margot White).

Last summer, while on vacation in Lebanon, Friedman met and fell in love with the Protestant Sally, a 31-year-old nurse's aide. During the intervening year, he has written to Sally on a daily basis, but she has given him no encouragement. Once, when Friedman drove 200 miles to see her at her hospital, Sally hid herself from him and had her colleagues tell him that she was not at work that day.

In a way, Talley's Folly is a mystery. Why would Friedman appear at Sally's home a year after their single week together on a seeming fool's errand? The solution to that mystery lies in their disparate, crippling personal histories. Suffice it to say that the perceptive Friedman has intuited that he and Sally are kindred lost souls. In convoluted, painfully jocular fashion, Friedman discloses to Sally the events that have led him to cut himself off from meaningful relationships. Then he will determinedly labor to unravel her secrets in order to break through to her heart.

One method that Friedman employs to protect himself from the cruelty of others is to express himself in a gently humorous style. Perhaps inevitably, this is the style in which Wilson has composed the entire play. Thus, it is easy to enjoy the charming and lyrically entertaining comedy that is Talley's Folly without giving serious consideration to the depth which Wilson has brought to his themes and characters. However, it is this depth that provides the ballast that distinguishes this play. Personally, I found Talley's Folly to be a powerful reminder of why my grandparents, who came to America in the early years of the last century, and their children, born both overseas and here, ardently loved America and passed that love on to me.

The bearded Richard Schiff is a realistic Friedman. He allows the audience to see that he is anxiously working at pleasing both his audience and Sally. Judd Hirsch, who originated the role in 1979, displayed a larger, more ingratiating and confidently amusing stage presence. Schiff's interpretation provides more illumination to the darkness below the surface. And, in Talley's funniest scene, Friedman gives a hilarious account of the reception (actually, rejection) that he received from Sally's family when he arrived at their house tonight ("You're Sally's Jewish boyfriend, ain't ya?"). Schiff's accent fades as the evening progresses. Although verisimilitude would be better served if the self-conscious Friedman's accent increased as the evening wore on, the accent contributes to the charm of his opening monologue. Margot White realistically portrays the emotionally locked up Sally, allowing only as much charm to emerge as is needed to account for Friedman's love for her.

Marshall W. Mason has wisely avoided any temptation to put a strong directorial stamp on the play. Mason allows the author and actors to appear to speak for themselves. In doing so, Mason reveals his love and respect for Wilson and their halcyon days together. John Lee Beatty's set is intriguing, delightful and evocative. The set clearly mirrors the overall look and feel of his 1979 and 1980 design. Parenthetically, the play's title refers to the boathouse which was built by a free-spirited Talley forebear. It would be most interesting to hear both Mason's and Beatty's observations on any changes in their approach to the play twenty-nine years after its original production.

Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes nicely reflect the early 1940s and the status and character of Friedman and Sally.

Talley's Folly is deeper and richer than I had recalled. This heartwarming entertainment is a reminder of the commonality that unites people of different backgrounds and of the rewards to be found by embracing life after being scarred by its horrors.

Talley's Folly continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 p.m./ Matinees: Saturday 3 p.m./Sun 2 p.m.) through November 2, 2008 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton NJ 08540; box office: 609-258-ARTS; online

Talley's Folly by Lanford Wilson; directed by Marshall W. Mason

Matt Friedman……………..Richard Schiff
Sally Talley………………....Margot White

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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