In the ever-lengthening parade of revivals this season, why “Talley’s Folly” is a puzzling question. The old, sweet charm of the moonlit Pulitzer-winning “valentine” is still there, but to hear from Lanford Wilson again, after all these years, with Marshall W. Mason directing, and most of the design team reassembled — including an exact replica of the original John Lee Beatty Tony-winning 1980 set — makes you feel like you’re watching a reunion. Beatty’s set, a wonderfully fanciful and decrepit folly, is still a beauty, but the play would benefit from being staged in a more intimate venue.
The Princeton audience, however, seemed determined to find contemporary relevance: When Matt Friedman (Richard Schiff) says, “Peace, and — more to the point — prosperity, is our ally now. Once again, we’re told the country has been saved by war,” the audience responded: “Hmmph.”
Schiff, wearing wavy hair and a Yiddish accent, is a displaced Jewish accountant, escaped from but scarred by the horrors of World War I; Schiff projects warmth and irony, a man whose defenses lie in the circuitous, the anecdotal and the metaphoric. After writing her daily — unanswered — letters for a year, he has come to court Sally Talley (Margot White) in a small town in Missouri, defying her bigoted relatives.
It is testimonial to the play’s irresistible appeal that the plot’s central contrivance is, if not believable, at least satisfying: That the man who doesn’t want to have children (having vowed never to bring another person into the world to suffer what he has witnessed) should fall in love with a woman who physically cannot have children.
As a two-hander, however, this production is lopsided. White’s Sally seems merely a pretty blonde shiksa who can’t hang on to her Southern accent. When Matt remarks on how alike they are, we are not convinced — she seems neither as intellectual, nor as political, nor as eccentric as the dialogue tells us she is. Her hidden sorrow and bitterness aren’t visible, nor does she define the role with the grace and manner of a woman raised in the Old South.
Matt deserves more passion and a better sense of humor than White’s reading of the role promises. If we are all “eggs,” fearful of cracking our protective shells — as one of the play’s central images has it — Sally remains unbroken, becoming merely another heroine fulfilling an audience’s chick-lit fantasies.
“Talley’s Folly,” like so many of Wilson’s plays, takes place on the Fourth of July; his celebration of the idea of America and the human need for independence seems dimmed, and this production never reaches beyond this couple on this stage, to suggest a larger, wider meaning.