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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Talley’s Folly’ Doesn’t Click on Second Stage

Lanford Wilson told interviewer David Savran that his “Talley’s Folly” “is more of a well-made play (than his “Fifth of July”). It locks into place, you can actually hear it click.”

Not at South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage.

This conversation (set in 1944) between an immigrant Jew and a small-town Missouri heiress--he woos her, she resists--initially seems no more natural than the gee-gaws on the abandoned boathouse where it takes place.

But as these once and future lovers keep talking, as they discover that they share mutual hopes for the future on one very important subject, we should hear that big click. It should sound like a force of nature.

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Here it just sounds forced.

This is the first major production of the play in the Southland since Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins did it at the Mark Taper Forum in 1979, and it raises the question of why we were so smitten with it back then. It must have had something to do with the chemistry between the two actors.

At South Coast, director Lee Shallat has two fine actors, Hal Landon Jr. and Anni Long, and John Iacovelli’s intricate boathouse set, complete with cobwebs. A breeze occasionally wafts across the stage, and so do the sounds of a rural night, designed by Chuck Estes.

But the chemistry isn’t there, and the play itself seems weaker as a result.

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The course of the play depends on our understanding why Matt Friedman continues to pursue Sally Talley despite the opposition of everyone--including, throughout most of the hour and a half of talk, Sally herself.

Wilson did make clear, perhaps too much so, the reasons why Sally found Matt intriguing--he’s exotic, he’s a symbol of her defiance against her family, he’s charming and incredibly persistent.

But what’s in it for Matt? It’s Matt who has gone out of his way and out on a limb, and Wilson didn’t explore his motivations deeply enough. We do learn that Matt has been severely wounded; presumably he seeks comfort against the storm. But Sally seems to offer more storm instead of more comfort; she is one remote and defiant shiksa.

Is she part of an assimilationist attempt on Matt’s part? Does she make him feel more like an American? Wilson should have raised these questions, even if he ended up answering them negatively.

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As it is, the play is too unbalanced between Matt the pursuer and Sally the pursued. We don’t see Matt question his own goal for one moment. Nor do we see Sally give Matt much of an incentive to keep going (other than what Matt points out as her nice new dress, designed by Shigeru Yagi). Given the romantic setting and Matt’s unfaltering stance, we never doubt how it will end.

Too bad we never fully understand why it got started. Without turning into a stereotype, Landon has adopted an immigrant’s inflections and body language. But there are moments when the accent deserts him. Matt imitates the local lingo occasionally--and Landon does it so well that it almost sounds more natural to him than Matt’s own Eastern European rhythms.

At least on Saturday night, there were a few moments when Matt’s gift of gab seemed to stall momentarily, when the pauses extended longer than expected. Perhaps this was Shallat’s and Landon’s choice; perhaps they were trying to indicate a little of the awkwardness under Matt’s spiel. But the pauses weren’t quite long enough for that. The play already seems too long in this incarnation, and prolonging it doesn’t help.

Long demonstrates Sally’s show-me side (this is Missouri, after all), but it comes off as fear more than curiosity. And it’s Sally’s curiosity that (in the absence of deeper writing by Wilson) must be one of the primary qualities about her that tantalizes Matt. Long’s Sally seems too trapped, restrained from leaving by Matt’s physical presence more than by his irresistible appeal to her.

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Cameron Harvey’s lighting design also seems unduly restrained. The transition from sunset to moonlight is hardly apparent. There isn’t much of a glow surrounding this supposedly happy ending.

At 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., through Feb. 26. Tickets: $14-$25; (714) 957-4033.


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