Just as books should not be judged by their covers, stage productions are not always reflections of their set design. Take Jeff Cowie's almost-too-grand recreation of the rococo Victorian boathouse that provides the sole locale for Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Talley's Folly, now being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company at its Laura Pels Theatre. What's with those huge painted flowers at the top? Should there really be so much bric-a-brac strewn about? Is it a sign that director Michael Wilson will place too heavy a hand on this delicate romantic valentine?
Fortunately, such fears are quickly allayed by the nimble rhythm that three-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein (Follies) finds in the quirky opening monologue the playwright has crafted for the show's protagonist, Matt Friedman. The 42-year-old Jewish accountant, with his slight Germanic accent, welcomes the audience with some rambling comic shtick and off-hand observations, and lets us know that, with our help, the next 97 minutes should result in "a waltz one-two-three, one-two-three, no-holds-barred romantic story." And presto, we're eager to join in and help out.
Minutes later, when Burstein is joined onstage by the formidable Sarah Paulson (The Glass Menagerie, American Horror Story), playing the unlikely object of his affection, 31-year-old Missouri-born shiksa Sally Talley, we realize that this beautiful play has found the right interpreters and we can settle comfortably in our seats.
Of course, Talley's Folly (the title refers to the boathouse as much as it does Sally's romance with Matt) is not as smooth as a waltz; it's a dance of resistance – an almost constant back-and-forth as Sally warily, sometimes wearily, succumbs to Matt's persistent wooing. Even when we're pretty sure the lady doth protest too much -- that Sally truly has no intention to live out her days as a nurse's aide in nearby Springfield, living with two female roommates – running away with a man you've only spent one week with a summer ago is not a decision to be made lightly.
For one thing, it's the middle of World War II and the future of America is still in flux. Will there be work for Matt, never mind Sally, once the Johnnies have come marching home? As anxious as Sally's family may be to have this avowed "old maid" leave their house for good, they're none-too-happy about handing her over to a man they perceived to be a "Communist." And as much as Sally longs to be free of her overbearing clan, she's still a good Southern girl who must think at least twice about possibly never seeing her kin – or her beloved boathouse – ever again.
Of course, there are two even larger reasons for her waffling behavior. Matt refuses to really tell her what has happened in his past, and until she gets him to confess the whole truth and nothing but the truth, she cannot commit to him. More important is her own deep, dark secret that she really wants to stay holed up inside her heart.
Paulson plays these shifts with expertise, finding the tricky balance between Sally's occasionally frosty exterior and her highly vulnerable interior, careful to keep her armor on even as she sheds a piece or two at a time. At times, she may seem perhaps a little too citified for a country girl, and some audiences might expect a portrayal of someone more conventionally "eccentric," but Sally is neither a hick nor a crazy woman.
While blessed in some ways with tackling the show's flashier and arguably meatier role, Burstein has also been handed the greater challenge, especially for those who still carry the indelible memory of Matt's original portrayer, Judd Hirsch. But he never falters, not just in making the part his own, but also in letting Matt's pain always simmer just beneath the jovial surface – at least until the moment when it's forced to come to a slow, inevitable boil.
Someday, perhaps, this wonderful work will be presented in repertory with its other two chapters (Talley & Son and Fifth of July). But don't wait for that to happen. It would be a folly to stay home and miss this lovely rendition.