Friday, April 11, 2014

Love and Folly at Merrimack

Photo: Meghan Moore
Merrimack Rep's production of Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly (through this weekend only) has by now garnered a large bouquet of critical praise. And there's a good reason why - it's a solid production, with appealing actors, and what's more, it's gorgeous: set designer Randall Parsons conjures a romantically ruined boathouse that's literally florid in its decay, and Paul Hackenmuller's lighting lovingly charts the slow steeping of twilight into night.  It's not too much to say that Merrimack has built an all-but-perfect frame for this late-70's Pulitzer Prize winner.

Nevertheless, a skeptical itch scratched at me throughout its length.  To be blunt, I'm not sure Talley's Folly is really going to last - or rather, I'm not sure that it should last; the downtown twist that Lanford Wilson gave William Inge has felt thin to me for a while now, and I don't foresee it feeling any thicker in the future. Indeed, this time around, Talley's felt more contrived than usual, and its flattery of knowing Broadway attitude a little more bald.

And not because of any serious gap in the acting - indeed, this is one of those occasional cases where solid performances actually throw into relief the hollowness of the script they're supporting.  Director Kyle Fabel elicits scrupulously detailed turns from the talented Kathleen Wise and Benim Foster (above left), who carry the play as two lonely hearts who find, or finally allow themselves to find, late love amid the seeming ruins of their lives; the dynamic Foster in particular is almost over-attentive to every quirk of his character (a fish-out-of-water Jewish bachelor who has set his cap for a shiksa goddess of the South).

But I have to admit that both these artists limit themselves to interpreting their script line-by-line, when I think the success of this - well, upscale sitcom, although I know it's rude to call it that - depends on its performers bringing to the stage reserves of urgency (and fear of defeat) that Wilson hasn't really bothered to write in.  He's not big on believable context, either - his evocation of the 40's feels lifted from Life magazine, and the "South" he conjures is one long false front as seen from Central Park West.

Indeed, the author mostly just maneuvers his lonely but prickly protagonists into position for a big reveal, while padding out his 97-minute runtime (yes, it's announced from the stage) with dozens of time-killing tricks, including a pointless preamble that is actually rewound and repeated. To be fair, that big reveal is indeed poignant, and there's certainly enough material for a good one-act in the improbable alignment of these two wounded souls, who at the last minute dodge the unhappy fate that a harsh world has arranged for them. Clearly such gentle re-assurance is enough for a lot of people - it's even enough to win a Pulitzer, apparently. And perhaps there's a valuable lesson there for critics of all eras; in the end, Talley's Folly argues that real theatrical ambition may be its own form of folly.

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