Some Folly

To this critic's eye, a stage full of fake plants never looks like the real thing, and usually prefigures a production as false as silk-and-wire foliage. But D. Martyn Bookwalter's gorgeous set for Arizona Theatre Company's Talley's Folly is as real as the people who walk through its lush, expertly detailed Victorian boathouse -- the "folly" of the title.

Lanford Wilson's two-character drama, one of a trilogy of plays (Fifth of July, set later along in Matt and Sally's story, was the first; Talley and Son the third) about the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. In this installment, Matt is here (and so, apparently, are we; his opening monologue is directed to the audience) to ask Sally -- and her anti-Semitic brother -- for her hand in marriage.

He's a 42-year-old Jewish accountant and a radical socialist; she's a 31-year-old WASP -- and because this is theater, both are keeping secrets. As with the other plays in the trilogy, it's Independence Day. There's a lot of talk about the rights of the working class, the persecution of Jews in both world wars, and of labor laws; but Talley's Folly is never preachy or dark. And while the premise of this beautifully written piece, set in 1944, can seem dated -- Sally is, at 31, an old maid; the 11-year age difference between Matt and Sally truly matters to them; socialism is kept as a shocking secret -- Wilson's dialogue and his exceptional characters are timeless.

Andrew J. Traister's direction is virtually flawless and -- considering the confines of the Talley boathouse -- endlessly inventive. His focus on the way Matt and Sally move and gesture tells us more about them than is on the page, and illuminates every scene with a subtle theatricality that's perfect for this play. Traister engineers some lovely scenes -- like one in which Matt straps on ice skates and pretends to skate with Sally inside the boathouse -- that skillfully balance the midlife romance of these people with their own awkward personalities.

Angela Reed is an actress who can speak reams with a look and a gesture. Sally's contrary posturing and cranky attitudes mask tremendous vulnerability, and Reed captures all of this perfectly, etching these conflicting emotions with poignancy and skill. We're meant to be annoyed, after a time, with Matt's ceaseless rambling; yet the actor who's playing him can't lose our sympathy for one of the 97 minutes he's onstage. Michael Santo brings just enough poignant yearning to Matt's nebbishy bluster to make him endearing.

I've always wanted to see a production of Talley's Folly without the preamble, a prelude during which Matt sets the scene and tells us what he hopes is about to happen. Mine is a foolish wish -- Wilson wrote the play's introduction for a reason -- and it's a wish I was willing to forget after watching Santo read this longish scene. ATC's production of Talley's Folly is that kind of creation -- one that can make something old new again; one that can make a curmudgeon believe in plastic plants.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela