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Talley's Folly

Richard Schiff and Margot White give authentic performances in the McCarter Theatre's excellent revival of Lanford Wilson's grittily charming romance. logo
Richard Schiff and Margot White in Talley's Folly
(© T Charles Erickson)
Sometimes one doesn't know what he's missed until he suddenly encounters it again -- which is that happens during the McCarter Theatre's excellent revival of Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly. The production's glow isn't just due to Phil Monet's evening -- evoking lighting by a steadily rising moon as it beams on John Lee Beatty's frilly notion of a capacious but fallen-into-disuse gazebo down by a Missouri river -- but the reunion of Wilson and his longtime collaborator, director Marshall W. Mason. Together, they always had -- and, given the evidence here, still retain -- a line on how to forge grittily-charming and charmingly-gritty views of particular people in particular places.

That tandem knack permeates the meeting down by the folly of resident Sally Tally (Margot White) and unexpected guest Matt Friedman (Richard Schiff). Lest it be assumed that this is a meet-cute set-up, Wilson quickly establishes that Sally and Matt have known each other for some time and are already in love.

In Matt's fervent pursuit of Sally up, down, and across the many folly levels designer Beatty has laid out -- including a lily pond on which a rowboat floats -- they hardly confine themselves to whispering sweet nothings. Their talk is intended to reflect not great thoughts but the give-and-take of two awkward people getting through to one another. At 31, Sally's fearful she's about to devolve into the family spinster; Matt, 42 and Jewish, sees himself as even more of a misfit. They're literal outsiders by virtue of their being by themselves while the rest of the insular Talley clan is listening to the radio a stone's throw away.

During the course of Matt's attempts to embrace Sally figuratively and metaphorically, they discuss what she deems their unsuitability, his journey to America, the real reason why her family has all but given up on her and many other matters (a few too many perhaps for dramatic purposes) that are just the sort of trivia on which love affairs are founded. Matt says of the argument he gave himself before taking on his ambitious, even reckless courtship, "What do you think she's going to do -- bite you?" He says this, as it happens, just after Sally has actually bitten him.

That bite on the hand looks painfully real as do the twosome's performances. Because much of the dialogue is deliberately contentious, it's important that, more than any other requirement, Schiff and White must make Matt's and Sally's desires appealing. They do to such an extent that at the performance I saw, the kiss they at last share had someone burst into applause. And it was clear that the sound of those two hands clapping represented a communal response. The gritty charm and charming grit Schiff and White needed to bring to the piece, they brought in abundance.

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