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A CurtainUp Review
In that monologue, Matt reminds us more than once that it is a play in three-quarter time. And Burstein, the multi-award-winning actor who never seems to run out of ways to amaze us with his unorthodox charm and his unexpected displays of versatility whether either in musicals (Follies, South Pacific) or plays (Golden Boy) reminds us that he is the one to set the mood and the tone of this exactly "ninety-seven minute" (as he tells us) play.
The time is July 4, 1944 with the action taking place on the property of the Talley's ancestral home in Lebanon, Missouri. Essentially a romantic duet, Burstein's partner in Wilson's lyrical play is the terrific Sarah Paulson. She plays Sally Talley, the only other character — the woman who Matt loves.
Using a special blend of ethnic and colloquial humor, Wilson captures the heart and mind, as his two people metaphorically voyage beyond the confines of a dilapidated Victorian boathouse into a wondrous and enchanted reality that is as inspiring as it is entertaining.
The first thing one sees upon entering the Laura Pels Theater is the boathouse setting designed by Jeff Cowie, a breathtaking eyeful. With the house lights fully on, we can see the shell of a warped rowboat at rest within the rotting skeleton of the vine-encroaching boathouse and gazebo . . . victims of neglect. Within the expressionistic floral frame, the fantastical structure with its chipped gingerbread is bathed with the light of a glowing sunset. Eventually, as the evening progresses, the twinkling of the stars. Lighting designer Rui Rita works overtime for these wondrously romantic effects.
Matt enters even before the lights dim and talks to us. He wants to make it quite clear that we are in a theater, a completely artificial environment. As a genial host would make his visitors comfortable in his home, so Matt makes us settle back in our seats in this manufactured but convivial atmosphere. He is soon confiding in us as to why he has returned to woo and win a certain woman with whom he has had an earlier fling.
Matt can cue in the proper sound effects on command, notably the barking of a dog. At the performance I saw, his request for a dog barking brought a number of barks to which he said, "I didn't ask for a kennel." But who could not respond to his request? Even the moonlight responds to his will. A touching and completely believable romance is now played against this fairy tale setting. The magic of believing is proved in Wilson's warm, compassionate and always intelligent writing.
Fantasy and reality mix rather well when the author believes they can through characters that are as genuine as the person sitting next to you. Paulson, who more than held her own against the formidable Linda Lavin in the Broadway revival of Collected Stories, once again confidently makes memorable a role in which she is more responsive than aggressive as spinster Sally, the nurses' aide who has evidently become a disgrace to the Talley family. She charms Matt in the pretty new yellow print frock even as we can see that she is a bundle of anxiety and insecurity.
At first, we feel Sally is no match for Matt, who can dramatize and over dramatize his feelings with words Sally never heard before. But Sally has a strength that is finally tapped by this Galahad in a drab business suit enhanced by boldly patterned necktie that he has purchased for the occasion. Disarmingly funny in his clumsily clownish attempt to ice skate on the wooden planks of the dock, Matt nevertheless assumes a disquieting poignancy as he reveals to Sally his traumatic childhood, fleeing the Nazis in Europe. Replete with improvisations and jokes, he is a vaudevillian at heart, and with a heart that he wants to give to Sally.
While much of Burstein's performance as the bearded New York-accented Jew in a land of shotgun-toting Gentiles is warm, honest, and delightfully comedic, Paulson takes more time letting down her feisty façade. But when she does let her defenses down, her emotional transitions are intense and moving.
These lovingly combative people intimately involve us not only in their own rekindled relationship, but also by making us care about the lives of people not even seen on stage. When a play is as deceptively small scaled as this and so well written and performed, the direction could almost be inadvertently taken for granted. I choose not to take the excellent direction of Michael Wilson for granted.
When Talley's Folly first opened at the Circle Repertory Theater in 1979 (before it moved to Broadway) the play's original director Marshall W. Mason gave it what many consider to be the definitive and often imitated production. One can not only feel the play's forever lilting tempo in Wilson's vibrant new direction, but also the feel of freshness that comes from a director who reveres it but not as an embalmed classic.
Talley's Folly is the first play in a trilogy that includes The Fifth of July and A Tale Told which was later renamed Talley & Son. Now wouldn't it be nice to see all three plays in repertory, especially at the Roundabout Theater.
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