AT THE BEGINNING of Talley's Folly, it looks like Lanford Wilson has set out to illustrate a most commonplace idea: that opposites attract. The two characters that comprise his cast start at the antipodes of American society. Matt Friedman is a Lithuanian Jewish accountant, gray suit, beard and wire glasses, Mittel-European accent and Henny Youngman-style jokes. Sally Talley springs from a factory-owning Ozark tamily, works as a nurse in an army hospital (it's 1944) and has a jaw locked as tight as a cashbox. The two are not a very probable couple.
It is the achievement of Wilson's play not to expoit their differences for comic effect--like a heterosexual Odd Couple--but instead to show, delicately but truly, those hidden currents of sympathy between people that have nothing to do with appearances, origins or names. By the end of Talley's Folly Wilson has twisted around the commonplace and demonstrated instead that seeming opposites are often much more similar than we'd think.
"Talley's folly" is a dilapidated boathouse, built by one of Sally's forebears. It is the scene for the two-hour confrontation between Matt and Sally that constitutes Wilson's play: they had had a brief affair the vear before and Matt has returned for one last attempt to win Sally from the arms of her bigoted family. The boathouse is also, in itself, a bizarrc extravagance; in Michael Anania's set design, it looks like a broken-down Baroque cathedral of navy-grey latticework, paint peeling and planks rotting. The "folly" folds its arms around the encounter between two aging unmarrieds, giving them a spot just slightly set apart from the everyday to work out their conflict.
That conflict begins simply: Matt wants Sally to come away with him, and Sally wants Matt to leave alone. But as Wilson's smoothly polished conversational writing advances, with plenty of one-liners and an occasional sight gag. Talley's Folly turns from a straightforward romantic sit-com into a much more sensitive character evocation. Like a stripped-down Ibsen drama, it forces its two characters to excavate the most airless tunnels of their memories.
The Next Move Theater production, directed by Peter Thompson, is well-placed, insinuatingly pleasing, and most effective in the play's most difficult areas--evoking a time and a crowd of people through only two performers, and holding an audience through two hours without an intermission and without any visual or sonic pyrotechnics. Ralph Pochoda and Maryann Plunkett define themselves against each other from the start: Pochoda's Matt is fidgety, defensive, and given to speechifying--his mouth seems to hemorrhage words. Plunkett's Sally takes a pose and holds it, folds her arms over her chest, and seems almost sullenly reticent--giving up words only with great pain. Their contrast, and their ability to paint the absent members of their families from a palette of human types, fills the rotting boathouse with a spectrum of human experience.
IF TALLEY'S FOLLY could boast only these accomplishments, it would be a successful melodrama, no more. It gains more stature by introducing the politics and history of the time it's set in--not in an obtrusive, doctrinaire way, but as a distant backdrop which only infrequently comes into full focus. Wilson doesn't so much expound the politics of America during World War II--the confusion on the left, the economic uncertainty, the awe at America's slowly unflexing muscles--as weave it into his characters' histories. At great length, with much defensive joking and shuffling of feet. Matt tells the story of his family's victimization at the hands of the "Great Powers" of Europe during World War I: with even more reluctance. Sally describes how her family had reduced her to a commodity on the market of wealthy-family marriages.
Their experiences had soured them to the American dream even before the Levittowns had started sprouting in every suburb. But there are no speeches about the horrors of the system in Talley's Folly--their dissatisfaction turns inward. It is on this ground that Wilson's two characters finally come to terms: for Matt, Sally is a woman who "thinks of herself as a human being, not a featherbed": for Sally, Matt is a man who stands outside the narrow-minded doltishness of her family. Their union at the end of Talley's Folly takes place right at the intersection of politics and emotion.
THE ONLY WEAKNESS of the play, in fact, is the anticlimactic schmaltz with which Wilson daubs his optimistic ending. A band is playing, the moon shines over the lake, and...they kiss. The curtain would fall, only there is no curtain. Something about the cliched nostalgia of this moment cloys, after the lifelike dialogue and fully wrought characterization of the rest of Talley's Folly. But the moment is over quickly. And anyway, Wilson obviously knew what he was doing--his play has been a hit in New York and other cities, and won the Pulitzer Prize last year. If to sell a delicately unpretentious, inspirationally rich play Wilson had to tack on a bit of dramatic muzak, that seems an acceptable price to pay.