Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Talley's Folly: The Things They Carry

"This is a waltz.  Remember. One, two, three."  Danny Burstein delivers this line with a skip in his step and an unknown song in his heart--he is a man in love and is about to tell us a story.  So it begins with "Once Upon a Time."   
Talley's Folly is a romantic two-hander by Lanford Wilson which manages to keep sentimentality at bay. This is helped by the sharp writing, smart direction, and the stellar cast of Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson.

Danny Burstein, at his most charming, is the lovable mensch Matt. He's a St. Louis based accountant. He's come to woo Sally (Paulson), daughter to a wealthy factory owner, a nurse's aide and self-proclaimed old maid.  They spent a wonderful week together last summer but since then despite Matt's letters and romantic gestures Sally has since kept him at arms length.  Wilson's play breaks the fourth wall at the beginning and makes the audience a co-conspirator in Matt's fairy tale.  Setting the scene in such a way that I was unsure if this was merely the tale as Matt imagined it or as it really was. 

The play reveals the tentative dance of intimacy between this couple. Set against the backdrop of the end of World War II, Sally and Matt, not naturals at romance, must navigate the uncharted waters of unexpected love, and deal with religion, family, history, and geography.  A million things can separate people. But at its core the play is not about those big ticket issues really.  It's about the truth we keep hidden in our hearts that is rarely revealed that is often the mountain that must be overcome to connect. And the ultimate risk that we will never be understood by the person we love--or once understood they find they cannot love us. 

Here these themes are well-served by the cast.  Burstein is simply effervescent.  I have seen him in a number of shows (most recently Golden Boy and Follies) and never quite "got" him.  But here I was with him every step.  With a glisten in his eye, oscillating between hope, despair, happiness, and loneliness, his smallest gestures spoke volumes. Whether he's gingerly holding Sally's hat or after taking a swig shaking off the gin Sally has hidden in her grandfather's boathouse.  Burstein convinces us readily he is a grown man made young again by opening himself up to love.  He stands there exposed before Sally and the audience and makes Matt's courage feel epic--leaping where's he's never leapt before without the safety net of assurances that Sally feels the same. Sally is the mystery. She's wealthy but uncomfortable with it. She's political and educated. She desperately wants out of her family home but something keeps her cold and distant from Matt.  Paulson is successful in the difficult role of being reserved and remote but reminding us of the girl she was last summer when this romance was in full bloom.  Flickering moments of softness, encouragement and warmth sneak out between her decisive pronouncements that Matt must leave.  Sally is a fascinating outcast. The black sheep of her family being over 30, unmarried, employed but a society girl who is supposed to be a pillar of the community.

Michael Wilson's (The Best Man) direction keeps Matt circling the "puzzle" that is Sally. He might be the energetic bee he speaks about in his prologue--he's squeezed a lifetime of words and passion into the brief and precious moments he has with Sally.  He's spilling over. She is the rock. Reserved and stoic.  Michael Wilson poses them so that sometimes it seems as if they are awkward teens mooning over each other and other times as the adults with baggage that they really are.

The set design was the least successful aspect for me.  Although it was supposed to be an interpretation of a Victorian folly of a boathouse, it was more architecturally reminiscent of the set of Golden Girls. 

I fell hard for the production.  Burstein and Paulson kept me hoping for the best and fearing the worst.  Spending 90 minutes with them was pure dramatic bliss.  I'm definitely going back for seconds.

I received a complimentary ticket to this production.

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