The venerable Pasadena Playhouse launches its 2004 legit season with the Arizona Theater Co.’s staging of Lanford Wilson’s venerable Pulitzer Prize winner. Penned in 1979, “Talley’s Folly” offers a tour de force exercise in two-character interaction, as 42-year-old Jewish ex-refugee Matt Friedman (Michael Santo) attempts to woo the thoroughly WASP, 31-year-old Midwestern spinster Sally Talley (Angela Reed) in the broken-down boathouse on the edge of her family’s farm near Lebanon, Mo. But the flame that supposedly smolders beneath the guarded facades of these two oh-so-lonely people is missing.
Under the immaculate staging of helmer Andrew J. Traister, Santos’ Matt and Reed’s Sally certainly project every thematic nuance of this slow to evolve courtship. Traister has brought out all the shadings of Wilson’s dialogue and characters, imbuing a rich subtext within what could easily seem like meandering chatter.
The two characters never leave the stage and, as Friedman informs the audience in a 10-minute opening monologue before Sally’s arrival, “If everything goes well for me tonight this should be a waltz, one-two-three, one-two-three, a no-holds-barred romantic story.” Yet there is a sensual schism separating the two that is never bridged.
Set on the evening of July 4, 1944, Matt has driven from St. Louis to claim the heart of the woman he met a year earlier while on vacation in Lebanon. Unfortunately, he is forced to seek refuge in the boathouse after being rudely turned away from the main house by Sally’s shotgun-toting, anti-Semitic older brother.
When Sally finds him, the two are thrown into rounds of emotional sparring as they painfully strip away the layers of self-defenses that have trapped them both.
The “Folly” of the play’s title is the Victorian-style boathouse built by Sally’s grandfather and created with a loving eye for every shabby detail by set designer D. Martyn Bookwalter. It’s a place of escape, away from the relatives among whom the liberal-minded Sally feels trapped. It is her independent spirit that Matt recognized and fell in love with, especially since it soared above the prejudices he had encountered most of his life.
Reed gets her half of the seemingly mismatched romantic duo just right. Her Sally Talley, who by 1944 standards is at 31 a practically middle-aged old maid, is scrappy, often short-tempered and oh-so-achingly vulnerable. Santos’ Matt Friedman, the more effusive of the two characters, is on the mark as the 42-year-old accountant who is on the surface less inhibited than Sally, but just as wounded. He also displays a facile ability at comic accents as Matt pulls out all the stops to convince reluctant Sally to be his wife.
By play’s end, it is easy to believe the thoroughly likable Matt and Sally have reached a meeting of the minds if not bodies. After investing so much good work in each other, it would have been better if Santo and Reed could have accomplished both.