Follies and Foibles

Arizona Theatre Company does its best with a lackluster script.

So I was explaining why I dislike the female character in Talley's Folly to a friend who knows playwright Lanford Wilson. (Skip the next three paragraphs if you want to shield yourself from the major revelation near the end of the play.) "This rich cheerleader, Sally, had gone out with this rich jock all through high school," I said, "but then she got TB and by the time she recovered, her fallopian tubes had pretty much burned out and she could never have kids, so the jock dumped her, and now more than 10 years later, here she is acting like a total bitch and spending 90 minutes rejecting a sincere guy who ardently wants to marry her."

"Gee," said my friend, "Lanford really is gay, isn't he?"

OK, that was a cheap shot, because a gay playwright of all people ought to understand that a meaningful lifelong relationship hinges on more than just the ability to procreate. It certainly did for most heterosexuals by 1979, when Wilson wrote Talley's Folly, and even if expectations of wives were far more limited in 1944, when the play is set, that's not reason enough for her to do her best to shove away a man who has explicitly stated that he has no interest in her whelping abilities. Sally's "motivation" seems merely a convenient hook on which to hang a play; it doesn't seem true to this otherwise independent-minded character, a smart woman desperate to leave her generally unsympathetic extended family.

Now, you might object, Sally's attitude is exactly what the title Talley's Folly alludes to. Sure, Wilson has Sally explain that the decaying, romantically ruined boathouse/gazebo where she meets Matt, her suitor, is one of the extravagant family-built structures that has earned the name "folly." (That boathouse has been beautifully designed for Arizona Theatre Company, incidentally, by D. Martyn Bookwalter.) But isn't Wilson just using that as a metaphor for Sally's mistaken notion of her self-worth?

OK, point taken, but a nice metaphor isn't enough to make me want to put up with 90 minutes of Sally's crap. If I were Matt, I'd have spat out some comment sure to reinforce Sally's low self-worth, gotten in my car, abandoned benighted Lebanon, Miss., and driven straight back to the sanity of my accounting job in St. Louis.

But then we'd have only a 30-minute play.

So it's good for ATC that Matt saves them the trouble of scrambling to find another one-act to pair with Talley's Folly. Matt is in love, and he's persistent, and he works and works and works to win Sally over with sweet talk, funny stories and even a painful revelation of his own.

Matt is a rather exotic specimen to the denizens of Lebanon, Miss. He's a bearded (but not Hassidic) European Jew, an urbanite and a devout leftist. He still speaks with a noticeable but not overpowering Yiddish accent, but he can do a fair Humphrey Bogart impersonation. And he's crazy about Sally, which may be his most exotic quality of all.

In ATC's production of Talley's Folly, which opened last weekend, Allan Wasserman plays Matt with irrepressible humor, a bit of guile and a distant sadness. Angela Reed delivers a Sally who seems strong and self-possessed, which makes her image problem all the more unbelievable. Reed is very good at showing how Sally is doing her best to suppress her amusement at Matt's antics, but not until nearly the end does Reed offer any real clue that Sally cares for the guy. And what's with that accent? A blatantly Southern twang drifts in and mostly out of her delivery. Residents of the Springfield area can drape a lazy inflection over their speech, but they don't sound like Southerners unless they've recently clawed their way up from Arkansas.

I can't whomp up much enthusiasm for Talley's Folly because Sally Talley annoys me more than any character since Bartelby the Scrivener, Herman Melville's pustule of passivity. Other members of Saturday's spotty audience seemed well pleased with their theatrical experience, though; they were better able to appreciate Wasserman's endearing but never cloying performance, Bookwalter's romantic set, Dennis Parichy's evocative twilight lighting, Andrew J. Traister's reserved stage direction and, yes, Wilson's generally well-crafted if sometimes rambling script. If that's enough for you, sally forth.