Time: July, 1944; early evening. Place: An old boathouse on the Talley Place; a farm near Lebanon, Mo. Plot: The courtship of Sally Talley, a 31-year-old WASP spinster, by Matt Friedman, a 42-year-old Jewish accountant from St. Louis. Result: 90-odd minutes of sheer enchantment called "Talley's Folly" that came to the Atkinson last night with Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins back in the parts they created last spring for the Circle Rep.
This is the little interlude play in Lanford Wilson's trilogy about the Talley family, of which "The 5th of July," set in the present, has already been seen, with the final play scheduled for production soon. To my mind, it is Wilson's finest work - funny, quirky, beautifully balanced and altogether disarming.
The coming together of the adroit, voluble, determined Matt and the skittish, adorable Sally is romantic comedy of the first order, and one only regrets not having been able to claim the appealing pair as lifelong friends.
Matt introduces the evening. Appearing in his shirtsleeves at the foot of the stage containing John Lee Beatty's storybook setting of a mildewed, rotting, gingerbread-adorned boathouse cluttered with forgotten objects and with a gazebo jutting out improbably from one side, he tells us that what we are about to witness is a "waltz" and, referring to his pocket watch, that it will last exactly 97 minutes. As he dons his jacket and enters the set, the scene takes on a twilight hue, and shortly Sally appears.
It is not a mere lark that Wilson has written, though all the appurtenances are there: a rising full moon, the chirruping of crickets and croaking of frogs and, across the water, the town band playing "Lindy Lou." Matt and Sally both have secrets, are both outcasts in their separate ways.
The war is on, though the tide has turned, and she ministers to wounded vets in a nearby hospital. He has avoided the draft for reasons that slowly emerge. The pauses are as pregnant as Pinter's, and the hesitant, considered phrases in the flow of dialogue are perfectly timed under Marshall W. Mason's inspired direction.
It takes a good deal of skirmishing - filled with jokes, heated argument, byplay and even horseplay - before Sally is won and the two are seated side by side in the ancient rowboat, agreed on hopping the night bus to St. Louis and a life together.
Hirsch's verbal fencing, filled with imaginative wordplay, is superb, and Hawkins is both lovely and enormously accomplished as a questing bird in seemingly random flight. Complementing Beatty's priceless setting (larger here than downtown and lacking only the reflecting "water") are Jennifer Von Mayrhauser's '40s clothes and Dennis Parichy's moon-drenched lighting.
You may recall that "Talley's Folly" was here but briefly last spring due to the fact that Hirsch, star of the popular television series "Taxi," had to leave for California to tape the next season's episodes. Hawkins joined him there to enlighten the sunshine crowd with a string of summertime performances. He'll have to return again in July for more taping sessions, and I hope the commercial sponsors of this Circle Rep production cast from their minds any thought of replacing him. Or her.
In fact, it would be nice if Matt and Sally could remain unchanged to return year after year. It's that kind of play, one to be lived in and left with regret, its figures lingering in the mind like, say, the vividly alive creatures of such disparate works as "La Boheme" or "The Marriage of Figaro" long after the lights have dimmed on them.
There are some plays - unhappily very few - that you simply love, and you want everyone else, everyone who is dear to you, to love with precisely the same unquestioning zeal. I feel that about Lanford Wilson's echoing dialogue of human survival, Talley's Folly.
It officially opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson, and if New York has any sense left in its little finger it will be with us for a long, long time. It is a superb play, and one that, perhaps surprisingly, reaffirms old-time methods of playwrighting.
But let us return to that first feeling - how you react to a play with a partner. I had unequivocally falled for Talley's Folly when I first saw it at its proper home, the Circle Theater, where it was originally produced last summer. For some reason, my wife didn't come with me. As a result I was watching this production - same cast, same director, same everything except nevers - partly through the eyes of my best friend.
I was almost nervous. She loved it, and I even loved it more than I did in its original home. It is a play that can take any space and any heart.
Wilson, one of our most considerable playwrights, has conceived Talley's Folly as part of a whole series of plays dealing with his hometown, Lebanon, Missouri. The series started with his play The Fifth of July, which has one of these present characters extraordinarily alive and other as cremated ashes. Guess which? No matter, Talley's Folly stands all by itself as the play of the season.
There is nothing to it, except life and art. This is a duet for ill-assorted lovers, an affair between an apple and an orange. The time is July, 1944. And the time is all-important. Wilson has built his play around that time as if it were a time-bomb or a time-exposure. Here we have two people in that America. Wilson is totally specific.
Now for the lovers and their tryst. It takes place, for reasons you don't have to know until you see the play, at a mad folly-style building that the Talley family built in that age of innocence before the Depression.
She is the daughter of the house, with a medical secret and a burden of guilt. He is a German immigrant Jew - his father, however still believes that he was more Prussian than Jewish - who works, with a computer-like mind as an accountant. He loves her and knows it, without quite showing it. She loves him and shows it, without quite knowing it.
And there it is. An evening of romance and stardust. But also a recognition of a place called America at a time strictly delineated as 1944. One of Wilson's skills is to place this nervous, nocturnal journey containing as much happiness as they are ever going to know, into its precise time slot.
The undertones, the overtones, the sheer depth of tonality are marvelous, and here Wilson has been obviously enlarged by his director. Marshall W. Mason, and his extraordinarily ordinary cast - Trish Hawkins and Judd Hirsch.
As this couple so dizzily but diffidently in love, Miss Hawkins and Hirsch, jokingly but desperately dazzle. The play's concept is simply that anything could go wrong with this totally ill-assorted duo.
But it is Wilson's task, and Mason's, to convince us that these two people could make a commitment to exist in the long littleness of time. And the acting is superb - these two, Hawkins and Hirsch, act as though they are somehow related to the audience, and tell this tiny-fantastic waltz of their lives as though the band itself was playing. And Wilson and Mason ensure that it is.
See this play - it is either the love story of your mother, your father, yourself, your son, or your daughter. There is always a moment where we reach out for a person we need to share our lives with. Talley's Folly is about that moment. It is probably predictable. It is undoubtedly magnificent.
Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly," which had a highly successful limited run at the down-town Circle Repertory last spring, is now installed - overhanging willows, moonlight on the rippling water and all - at the uptown Brooks Atkinson. The first quick question: Will we love it in the middle of February as we did in early May? The prompt, happy answer: You bet. "Talley's Folly" is a charmer, filled to the brim with hope, humor and chutzpah.
It's an immensely energetic hesitation waltz performed by two people who've had a brief affair - a year earlier they saw each other "seven days out of seven" - but who have then backed away, yearning but biding their time. Each has reasons for hesitating, but it is the man who has decided to break out of the shell first. With a crack like thunder and a tongue that could teach lighting tricks.
Judd Hirsch plays a Jewish tax accountant, of "probably" Lithuanian descent (he doesn't speak authoritatively unless he's dead certain of his facts), who's come for one last try at wooing the rebellious daughter of some very rich people in Missouri. He's waiting for her in the family "folly" - really a fancifully imagined boathouse left to rot on the riverbank - because he doesn't want to tangle further with her deeply conservative, if not altogether prehistoric, family. A double-barreled shotgun lies in wait for radicals, Jews and Franklin D. Roosevelt, should any of these ever come by. (The time is 1944.)
Mr. Hirsch doesn't waste time while he is waiting. Chatting informatively and most engagingly with the audience, he explains away all of the stage carpentry and lighting that make the atmosphere so romantic (the latticework, the louvers, a revolving spotlight that puts a sparkle on the water that isn't there), assures us that, as the dockside is arranged, the audience is really in the river, and then somehow gets on to the subject of bees. Had you thought there were a number of amusing things to be said about the life expectancy of the bee?
But it's not bees Mr. Hirsch is worrying about. He doesn't know what Trish Hawkins, the girl in the case, expects of him, or what he dare expect of her. When she finally appears from the dark of the hill, his inventive, wistful, irrepressibly hopeful mind goes instantly to work ("I have great ratiocinative powers," he declares with a grin). He's seen her run into the house a few minutes before, dressed in the uniform she wears when working at a local rehabilitation center. Now she's in a pretty, moth-light summer frock. And has come down simply to chase him away, she claims. He cannot buy that. "You can't come down here to chase me away in a pretty dress," he challenges, winning point one right off.
His further challenges take a wild variety of forms, as she keeps slipping into handy shadows and he darts all about her, hoping to spin a binding web. He is patient and impatient, kindly and furious, swiftly brooding and as swiftly ready to play the fool. Impersonation becomes him, and he has a vaudevillian's supply of accents with which to mock the inhospitable world about him. Departing in anger, he immediately returns to slur a Bogartian "You dames is all alike," lapsing into outrage when she mistakes the bit for Cagney.
With a straw clamped in his jaw and thumbs locked into his suspenders, he is willing to mock the hillbilly rhythms of her family. Her turn for outrage: They are not Southern. They are so, he responds commandingly. Except for New York, and a small spot around Boston, all of the country is Southern.
He is not commanding but horrendously insulted when she suggests that he has an accent. He has taken speech lessons and removed "every trace" of such a thing, though Yiddish rhythms do indeed turn up whenever emotion reaches a certain temperature.
Most of Mr. Hirsch's persuasiveness is nimble, funny, exuberant - including a dash of unsteady ice skating on the treacherous bare boards of the dock, in waltz time and beneath blurred stars. But there is a moodiness, a memory of a family lost to the French and Germans, an old pain that surfaces now and again.
Behind his trim beard and spectacles, Mr. Hirsch's face turns solemn and wise with an ancient weariness; he has a secret that undercuts love, as she does. He is determined to have this girl; but there are confessions on both sides to be arrived at first. The interplay of sobriety and sheer high spirits is subtle and affecting. Mr. Hirsch's performance is surely one of the finest of the season, last season, any season.
Miss Hawkins's role is the less developed of the two (there are no other characters, and the hour-and-a-half encounter is performed without intermission). By far the more reluctant of the pair, the girl is by nature and circumstance evasive, elusive. The actress is most appealing, however, admitting that she did enjoy their earlier idyll, except for having to change the tire on his car.
The crisscrossed moods affect her. She is a defeated creature, a resigned spinster, as she acknowledges that her father looks at her as though she were a broken swing. And she glows as brightly as the omnipresent moonlight when she's remembering the kindly uncle who built the "folly" and built it tattered and torn, somehow knowing she'd come along and need it for a hiding place. Mr. Hirsch's infatuation is a reasonable one.
The twin secrets, when they at last come out, are a bit pat; they make the pair fit just a little too well. But by that time, we are long since committed to this defensively "liberal Midwestern college graduate" and to the accountant who has a strong streak of Harlequin in him ready to pop out with the least encouragement, or with no encouragement at all. Marshall W. Mason's cheerfully inventive staging has helped see to that, and so has John Lee Beatty's dissolving birdcage of a setting.
The freshly available entertainment at the Brooks Atkinson is droll, sprightly, and much, much warmer than the February weather outside. It still has May in it.