Slow Night by the River

In Talley's Folly, the real folly is going to see the play

Talley's Folly, now at Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs, might just qualify as audience abuse. OK, so it's not like they took your money, sat you down, whacked you upside the head with a blunt instrument, and then sent you whimpering back to your car. But, all things considered, that might be preferable to the uncomfortable snoozefest -- annoying from beginning to end -- the audience must endure for an hour and a half.

I know that's harsh. Although the play, by Lanford "American theater icon" Wilson, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for drama, that doesn't mean you have to like it. And although it doesn't feel quite right to ream a production that seems more like community theater than professional, hey, they're the ones charging professional prices for tickets.

It's July 4, 1944, and middle-aged St. Louis accountant Matt Friedman (David Birnkrant) has driven under cover of night to the Talley family farm in bucolic Lebanon, Missouri, where a year ago, he had a weeklong vacation fling with 31-year-old Sally Talley (Rebecca Mills). Matt's kind of people (meaning Jewish) aren't welcome suitors in Methodist country, even though Sally is quickly accelerating into spinsterhood, while her once-dynastic family decelerates into white trash.

Mills and Birnkrant: The chatter ends an hour and a half later.
Mills and Birnkrant: The chatter ends an hour and a half later.

On his return to woo, Matt lures Sally down to the family's elaborate Victorian boathouse -- the eccentric "folly" built by Sally's ancestors. After years of Depression and war, it's also decomposing, just like her family's position in the world. As crickets chirp this Independence Day, what are an aggressive suitor and his reluctant girl to do? Chatter for an hour and a half, of course, about regrets, secret pasts, and pessimistic visions of their future.

That would be fine if Matt and Sally weren't so boring. "Why did you come back here?" Sally asks. Yes, why? We all want to know. Whiny Sally's a dud, and not in an engagingly warped, Glass Menagerie kind of way. Certainly, more interesting women exist in wartime St. Louis. Hell, if Pamela Anderson herself came to Coral Springs to play Sally, you would still sit back and say, "Dude, walk away." Although, in his own right, Matt is a character so earnest in his awkward attempts at endearment, and coming up so short in the charm department, that he makes the boss in The Office look like a catch. Whatever happened in the summer of '43 should have stayed in the summer of '43. Yet, here we are. Why?

By the time the mysteries behind Matt's existence as a refugee Jew and Sally's spinsterhood are dropped in the last 20 minutes, you just don't care anymore. You've already gone into Publix list-making mode (I need eggs, milk, bananas... wait did something just get revealed on stage?). Oh well. And then it's all over. All that's left is the snickering about the play's unlikely end from those in the seats around you.

I feel a bit sorry for the two actors mired here. They don't fully occupy their roles in the way this "waltz" of a play requires to make it work. Overall, though, the problem isn't so much the players or the direction by Hugh Murphy. The problem isn't even the set, an over-the-top, ivy-covered construction filling every inch of stage, like something out of Disney World's Frontierland into which you expect an animatronic Mark Twain to wander from off-stage.

The problem really relates to stuff the audience can't be assumed to know. And the answer to the question -- why are we here? -- is that, despite what I just said, Matt and Sally are actually quite engaging characters... but in an entirely different play. The only thing that makes Talley's Folly interesting is that it's a prequel to Wilson's Fifth of July. In that play, old Sally, armed with an urn of deceased but well-loved Matt's ashes, comes back to the family farm. In Fifth of July, though, the farm is on the verge of being sold by her gay nephew Ken, who lost his legs in the Vietnam War and is convening old friends and new, à la The Big Chill, to contemplate where their lives are heading.

After seeing Talley's Folly, I went back to read Fifth of July and realized that I actually liked Sally and Matt. Yes, in Fifth of July-- first produced in 1978, a year before Talley's Folly debuted -- Sally and Matt are both cool. But if you don't appreciate this before you sit down, you're lost and bored. In a perhaps esoteric analogy, why do we read J.D. Salinger's tepid Seymour: An Introduction? Because we're already obsessed with Salinger's Glass family stories about Seymour, Franny, Buddy, and Zooey that we've already read. Taken by itself, Seymour: An Introduction sucks. Same with Folly.

What's that you say? Talley's Folly must have won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for something? It probably helped that at the time of its first production, the hottest comedy on the boob tube was Taxi, which starred an amiable Judd Hirsch. Guess who played Matt in the original production? In fact, Hirsch so institutionalized the Matt role to rave reviews that the play moved to Broadway and into Pulitzer attention. "I've never owned a part as much as I own this one," he said in 1979.

None of this, however, does a lick of good if you're already stuck in the Stage Door seats. On the other hand, those Publix lists have to get written sometime.

 
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