NEW YORK (AP) — When a man goes courting, it generally doesn't involve shouting and flailing around in ice skates on rotten floorboards in the middle of summer. Yet the 1944 wooing of southern belle Sally Talley by an unlikely suitor includes all that and much more.
Lanford Wilson created this lively, unorthodox courtship in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy "Talley's Folly," part of his series about the wealthy Talley family of rural southeastern Missouri. A sparkling, absorbing revival that opened Tuesday night off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company features two accomplished theater pros, Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson.
Burstein warmly and engagingly renders Matt Friedman, the genial yet outspoken Jewish socialist accountant from St. Louis making his big move for future happiness. Paulson is primly nuanced as conflicted, ambiguous Sally, subtly conveying a variety of repressed emotions.
While it seems clear that these intellectually-matched, liberal characters would probably be good together, it's a mystery why Sally is angrily rejecting Matt's every creative appeal and urging him to get on out of town.
The 97-minute play takes place on the Fourth of July in 1944 in a beautifully rendered, dilapidated boathouse on the Talley farm. Designed in perfect, dusty, broken-down detail by Jeff Cowie, the boathouse is the Victorian-style folly of the title.
The times are rapidly changing. As Matt explains in the prologue, which Burstein delivers energetically and comically to the audience, the propaganda and economic machinery of World War II is causing the public to turn their focus to individual prosperity, abandoning the common unity they felt during the Depression. Sally, who tends to wounded veterans as a nurse's aide, has a perspective on reality that's alien to her small-minded family.
Matt also hopefully predicts at the outset that his ensuing courtship will be "a waltz, one-two-three; a no-holds-barred romantic story." He accurately predicts the no-holds-barred part. Directed by Michael Wilson, the staging is dynamic, as Matt bounds around the boathouse trying to persuade a very reluctant, spiky Sally that she would be happy with him.
They are no longer young, yet not terribly old, although in that era, a 31-year-old unmarried woman like Sally was considered a hopeless spinster. Matt's character in 1940s rural Missouri was a fish out of water, and Sally's family considers him to be a "Communist traitor infidel" who needs to be run off the property with a shotgun.
Sally's also suspicious that Matt, a decade older, is hiding a wife someplace, yet Paulsen skillfully alternates between hope, suspicion, despair and glimpses of fondness for Matt.
The sensitive, intelligent battle between Matt and Sally see-saws back and forth, with Burstein fighting valiantly for a yes and the audience pretty much rooting for him. Sally cannot turn away this ardent suitor, no matter how hard she tries, not even with ladylike insults such as, "You do not have the perception God gave lettuce."
It turns out that each of them is hiding a painful secret, but none so big that would render this odd pair entirely incompatible. Even if you know the outcome, it's a real treat to watch these actors embody this touching pair of wanna-be-, oughta-be-, might-be-happy-ever-after lovers as they do the dance once more.