"If everything goes well for me tonight, this should be a waltz," Matt Friedman tells the audience in the four-minute opening monologue of Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly.
In this delightful production, everything does go well as Palm Beach Dramaworks presents a thoroughly enjoyable and dramatically rich interpretation of Wilson's tender, romantic story about two lonely people and the boathouse that brings them together.
Wilson has his drama unspool in real time — 97 minutes without an intermission, and purposefully so since interrupting this slice-of-life story would snip the momentum. Friedman (played by Brian Wallace) is a 42-year-old accountant from St. Louis who drives 3 hours west to Lebanon, Mo. It's a year to the day when he had a Fourth of July fling with Sally Talley, the 31-year-old daughter of a garment factory owner who works as a nurse's aide. Matt has fallen in love with Sally, but she has reasons for keeping her distance.
The play is magical in so many ways, and director J. Barry Lewis allows the lyrical beauty of the author's words to weave their spell. It starts with the monologue, which breaks theater's fourth wall as Matt speaks directly to the audience pointing out the set pieces, making note of the "footlights," basically informing us that we are about to see a play. As Sally (Erin Joy Schmidt) nears the boathouse, she's calling Matt's name — the lights dim and when they come up, the play begins. Magic.
When the actors and director, plus the production elements all come together with pin-point precision like they do here, by the end of the relatively short play, you'll feel like you've been part of a work of art from start to finish. Perhaps that's what Wilson (who passed away just last year at the age of 73) had in mind with this romantic drama. Set in 1944, the country is in the midst of war and Sally's conservative Protestant family is none too keen on her keeping with a Jewish immigrant who is 11 years her senior and a "communist traitor infidel," according to their assessment. Like any good character study, it is not without its dramatic tension. The lovers, for most of the play, are at odds. Matt tries to pull Sally closer (sometimes he does so literally) while she keeps pushing him away (sometimes she does so physically, too).
Some of the dialogue about a struggling economy, unemployment and intolerance ring true to contemporary audiences despite the play referencing almost 70 years ago. A few of the lines got an acknowledging nod from the audience, and Matt's statement: "It's hard to use your peripheral vision when you're being led by the nose," received an outright collective chuckle.
Wallace is charming as Matt. It's enthralling to see the actor inhabit this spirited character — nosily examining every inch of the rickety boathouse, beautifully rendered by scenic designer Michael Amico. It's here, in this once shining structure that has lost its luster, where he finds a pair of old ice skates and puts them on. He uses the boathouse as a support when he tells stories of his hard knock life as a boy and during passages where he wears his heart on his sleeve about his longing for companionship and love.
While Wallace has a heavy load to carry as Matt, Schmidt has a balancing act as Sally. In lesser hands Sally could end up as a supporting character to the Wilson's more robust Matt, but Schmidt understands the idea of completing the picture that Wilson wants to create of this couple, so she works hard at keeping Sally on equal footing. One weak spot, and only to the fault of the writer, not to the actress, is Wilson's reasoning for Sally's lonely hole in her soul; it is one of the more cloying parts of the script. To Schmidt's credit, she sells it and makes it emotionally believable.
If you Google the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, you'll see that Tally's Folly is one of those two-person dramas that are constantly ripe for revival. It debuted on Broadway in 1980 with Judd Taxi Hirsch playing the memorable Matt. Now The Roundabout Theatre Company has announced an upcoming Off-Broadway production of the play set for 2013, but there's no need to travel to New York, or wait until next year — Palm Beach Dramaworks' production is top of the line, and closer to home, too.
Talley’s Folly at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, through Nov. 11 561-514-4042, ext. 2, or www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.