‘Talley’s Folly’ feels contrived in the 21st century 

click to enlarge Lauren English and Rolf Saxon play a couple working out some issues in Aurora Theatre Company’s revival of Lanford Wilson’s prize-winning "Talley’s Folly.” - COURTESY DAVID ALLEN
  • Lauren English and Rolf Saxon play a couple working out some issues in Aurora Theatre Company’s revival of Lanford Wilson’s prize-winning "Talley’s Folly.”
By 1979, when the late Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander “Talley’s Folly,” opened, he had been lauded for almost two decades for his insight into human interaction and his particular approach to realism.

Yet, in the revival of the play at Aurora Theatre Company (the first of the Talley trilogy, to be followed later this month by “The Fifth of July,” and a reading of his “Talley & Son,” to complete the Wilson tribute), that approach feels a bit formulaic.

Wilson starts out by breaking the fourth wall in “Talley’s Folly”: Matt Friedman (a charming and affable Rolf Saxon) ambles onto the stage to set the scene for us (a boathouse on the property of the wealthy Talley family in Lebanon, Missouri, 1944) for what he describes as “a waltz.”

But by the time the houselights go down, and Sally Talley (an emotionally full yet frustratingly opaque Lauren English) enters, the play is less a waltz than a coy cat-and-mouse game, in which Matt tries to woo the coldly rejecting Sally through reasoning, joking and storytelling.

“Live for today!” he coaxes her, gently accusing her of being terrified.

“Everything’s upside down,” she protests.

They haven’t seen each other in a year, but Matt, an accountant in St. Louis and a Lithuanian immigrant, stubbornly believes Sally, a wartime nurse’s aide, is his soul mate.

Sally does share political and social values with the intellectual Matt, but she’s wealthy, he is not, and he’s Jewish (her parents consider him a “communist infidel traitor”). We wonder if that’s why she’s rejecting him, but it turns out she’s been keeping a secret, which she confesses to Matt quite late in the play.

Unfortunately the secret is anticlimactic, and the dynamics between the two characters end up feeling contrived: both Sally and Matt seem evasive for no reason, with Sally’s vagueness and ambivalence a playwright’s construct rather than a need arising organically from fraught circumstances and inner convictions.

Nor has director Joy Carlin figured out a way to make us understand Matt’s almost stalker-like persistence in the face of Sally’s intransigence, or to believe in Sally’s continual, too obviously choreographed, attempts to leave the boathouse.

Ultimately, in the context of today’s dramatic literature, marked by the potent ultra-realism of playwrights such as Annie Baker, Neil LaBute, the young Irishmen and others, “Talley’s Folly – despite its lyricism and its hints at deep social issues – feels too obviously manipulated.


Talley’s Folly

Presented by Aurora Theatre Company

Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 7

Tickets: $35

Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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