Online Entertainment Magazine

January 13  2004

Theater Reviews


A Waltz to Remember





PASADENA, CA - The Talley family boathouse is a poignant ruin, charmingly forgotten, a Victorian valentine piled with debris and crumbling under a shaggy canopy of maples.  As the sun goes down its timbers turn to copper, and later in bluish moonlight its gingerbread shadows are stark and a little scary, but winking just so with fireflies.  The neighbor's dog woofs pleasantly on command, and also right on cue, the town band from across the river will strike up a brassy arrangement of the very song our hero has just crooned to his protesting lady love. 

In Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly, the artifice is evident even before the houselights go down, as one of its two characters strolls onstage to "point out the facilities," provide some background on the wartime setting, and warn us that the play lasts ninety-seven minutes with no intermission, so maybe we should be thinking about getting a drink of water.  He also tells us we're about to see a romance--a "waltz"—and that the trees, the band, the crickets, and "this rotating gizmo in the footlights"--the watery moonlight effect-- are all there to help him.  Help him what?  It's not immediately clear.  But the man is nervous, expectant.  He doesn't stop babbling to the audience until a woman's voice, offstage, approaching, calls his name.  Then he seems afraid.  Everything is already at stake as the houselights suddenly dim, the sunset kicks in, and somebody turns on the crickets. 

The artifice --- the magic --- hits full stride, and Matt and Sally begin their “waltz.”  

Why does it work?  We have already seen the man behind the curtain.  Why do we care, why do we laugh, why do we ache over Matt’s desperation, Sally’s wounded spirit?  Why are we anxious each time Sally threatens to leave—as if anyone could be absent for long in a two-character play?  Why do we ride so happily this ninety-seven minute roller coaster of contrivance and coincidence until the foregone conclusion of a happy ending makes its appearance, right on schedule, with an almost audible pop.  


I don’t know why.  I don’t think Lanford Wilson knows why.  But he knows how.  All the skill it takes to make that kind of thing happen is at his command.  He takes a kind of wicked pleasure in knowing that an audience will jump through hoops to get to the magic.  Wilson doesn’t ask us to suspend our disbelief.  He hoses us down with it, then dares us not to.  And we do.  We can’t not.


Talley's Folly is that full of wisdom, comedy, tears, romance--pretty much everything we go to the theatre to experience.  And at the Pasadena Playhouse, as you might expect, Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning script is in the hands of masters.    The poignant boathouse, for example (scenic design by D Martyn Bookwalter) may just qualify this as the prettiest Talley's Folly  ever.  Dennis Parichy was Lighting Designer for the original New York production of the show, and his work here is painterly and fluid, unafraid of sudden change, and unafraid of the dark.  


Director Andrew Traister, long associated with co-producing Arizona Theatre Company, moves his actors naturally at times, artificially at others-- his choices always justifiable, I think.  He's located some pauses in the dialog--lengthy at times--that are so right they take your breath away. But Mr. Sound Designer, having spent many a summer night in Missouri, I have one word for you:  Cicadas.


When so many behind-the-scenes artists have brought so much skill and care to their contributions, it isn't quite fair that the actors' work will be hardest to forget.  But that just means they got the balance right.  Angela Reed as Sally must somehow be both transparent and mysterious, and she is.  With far less to say than the desperately garrulous Matt, her reactions must be small but packed.  I don't remember ever spending so much time watching a character who isn't talking, but listening.  



Everybody's happiness depends on Sally's reactions.  But Ms Reed slyly gives it all away when, while alternately threatening to leave and ordering poor Matt to go home, her Sally sits down on a dusty bench leaving  ever so much room for Matt to sit beside her.


The role of Matt was originally written for the actor Judd Hirsch, and Michael Santo, without giving us an impersonation, isn't afraid to bare his inner Judd.  Also impressive is that although the character Matt is supposed to be funny for the sake of our entertainment, and trying to be funny for the sake of his reluctant lady, you never catch Michael Santo trying to be anything but Matt.

At the start, talking to the audience, he seems a bit ill-at-ease.  It crosses our minds that perhaps we're not in the most skillful of hands.  But it's clear soon enough that this is not Mr. Santo's awkwardness.  It's Matt's.


Like so much in this piece, what seems odd or off-putting is almost certainly that way for a reason.  The writer, the director, the players have thought it out so fully, through so many levels, and with such affection, that it all just works.  It holds up under our closest scrutiny, and rewards any amount of re-examination with new flashes of discovery--resonance, parallels, ironies--that remind us why we go to the theatre.


Talley's Folly   at the Pasadena Playhouse is a magic trick with the wires in plain sight, and still we go home astonished. - G. R. White


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