Theater review by Helen Shaw. Laura Pels Theatre. By Lanford Wilson. Dir. Michael Wilson. With Danny Burstein, Sarah Paulson. 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
In the 1979 romantic comedy Talley’s Folly, Lanford Wilson uses the charming (if creaky) “odd couple” formula to discuss history and class. We begin on the Fourth of July in the “folly” of the title, a picturesque, falling-down boathouse. Into this ripe-for-love setting Wilson inserts a mismatched pair: Matt Friedman (Burstein), a Jewish socialist émigré, and his thorny beloved, Sally Talley (Paulson), scion of the first family of Lebanon, Missouri. They clash and quarrel and move together in an unabashedly sentimental pattern. But it’s 1944 in America: There are snakes in the honeysuckle.
In Michael Wilson’s intermittently entertaining production, Burstein works hard to bully Sally into his arms. (Depending on your sympathy for his tactics, that time can grow long.) The text’s real-time structure takes us from sunset to star-spangled night, and the production’s flaws themselves seem to shift as the light changes. Director Wilson has Burstein work broad, while the precise, cinematic Paulson looks on coolly. Their mismatch can jibe with the text, then not, and—despite the absence of chemistry—it’s fascinating to watch their stylistic tug-of-war.
Wilson knew Folly was old-fashioned; hence the dilapidated setting. But “old-fashioned” here masks “sexually regressive.” Matt’s point of view invariably dominates; he controls the stage (he points out footlights while Sally stays a character), and gets to espouse all the show’s “wisdom,” whether economic or psychological. Perhaps with a more erotically charged duo we wouldn’t notice the ugly gears grinding away. But here we can see that when Matt declares in his introduction that the show “should be a waltz,” he’s actually saying the fella will take the lead.—Helen Shaw