I have a problem with the term “romantic comedy” and what it has come to represent, so it was with some trepidation that I set out to attend the Columbus Civic Theater production of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly last night. The marquee touted it as a romantic comedy, and the website said it was just one act and around an hour and a half long. I figured I could risk that much saccharine (if that was what it was going to turn out to be), and I had looked forward to seeing another Columbus Civic Theater production in their intimate venue as the other two productions I had seen there over the years varied wildly. I’m happy to report that their presentation of Talley’s Folly far exceeded my expectations, and it may even help revise my opinion of the romantic comedy genre, previously wrecked for me by films starring Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kate Hudson in the past decade or so.
Talley’s Folly was first performed in 1979 off-Broadway, later premiering on Broadway in 1980. It wasn’t a big winner come Tony Awards time, but it did capture the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a prestigious enough honor to ensure that it would be remembered and performed by theatre companies across the country for decades. Set in 1944 on the Fourth of July at a dilapidated boathouse in Missouri, Talley’s Folly is about Matt Friedman (RJ Shuman), a foreigner of indistinct origin, and Sally Talley (Britt Kline), a spinsterish nurse in her mid 30s. The two spent a special week together a year before, and now Matt has arrived with little warning to determine exactly where they stand in their relationship. And at this point if you think Sally is all lavender and down comforters, think again! She is loud, prickly, and not susceptible to roses and candies like a younger woman might be. Matt can be belligerent and stubborn as well, and they aren’t the stereotypical match made in heaven – and thank God for that! Perfect people with perfect stories are boring, and this story is anything but.
There are laughs to be found in the play, but they arise out of conversation and situations naturally, not in the form of punchlines or asides that would be out of place. Matt and Sally are not naive youngsters but rather older people who have lived and carry scars as reminders. Neither suffer romantic delusions or fools gladly, but they share common philosophies and ideals – if only they can manage to keep fear from wrecking this opportunity at something special together. The small semi-circle of a stage has been flawlessly transformed into a boathouse (scenic artist Amanda Compton is to be praised for making the space functional for the story as well as appearing old and dusty), and that set combined with the limited seating capacity forges an intimacy that serves to make the audience feel like they are also in that boathouse, eavesdropping on everything as it unfolds.
As good as the writing in the play is, this production rises and falls with its cast, which is excellent. This is the second time I’ve had the pleasure to see Britt Kline (I saw her as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire several years ago), and I must say she performs with the energy of a stream engine. She’s always thinking and reacting naturally, mindful of the needs of the story and keeping it moving while also modulating her speed to allow her character room to breathe. She strikes me as someone who really flourishes when working with another extraordinary talent (in Streetcar her scene partners varied in ability, so I found her performance in that piece uneven), and fortunately RJ Shuman is on hand to hit the ball over the net back to her at every opportunity. RJ speaks with a slight accent throughout, which I imagine is more difficult than maintaining quite a heavy one as more subtlety is involved. There is a moment when an accident occurs on stage (I’m being vague so that I don’t spoil the surprise), and RJ’s timing was so spot-on that I thought it was real and had to reign in my instinct to call out, “Are you okay?” RJ comes off as logical but with wit and completely present in the moment. Director Richard Albert’s handiwork is certainly there but invisible, as good direction should be. RJ and Britt move about naturally, taking in the space without aggrandizing it, and I would be remiss for not giving Mr. Albert his due as I’m sure his guidance combined with his cast’s talent is what makes this such an engaging production.
But back to Britt… She has a way of using her dark eyes to punctuate her dialogue and the scene. One minute they are periods and then the next they are the dots in exclamation points and question marks. It’s really quite remarkable, and I often found myself just focused on her reactions instead of looking back to RJ – not because RJ didn’t have anything himself to show (he absolutely did) but because Britt was taking everything he said in with her countenance, digesting it, and then naturally responding. What she’s doing looks neither effortless nor labored but RIGHT and correct. Both Britt and RJ aren’t playing the most likable people, but that’s okay because they are flawed much in the same ways that we all are. It helps the audience relate to both of their characters and care about their future.
Once upon a time there were literate, intelligent romantic comedies starring the team of Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, and it is in that vein that I would call this piece a “romantic comedy,” harkening back to a time when people read, talked, and thought more than they do today. Or maybe that’s just how I picture the past, when a letter took time to write and be delivered, and then one had to wait and wait for a response. If Sally and Matt had had social media then they probably wouldn’t have seen each other again at all, and that would’ve been a shame. Isn’t it funny that with so many ways to electronically stay in touch with people that we seem to me moving further and further apart? Ah, but I’m getting off track, as the play has made me consider all of this. Oh, but what joy to attend a play that makes me think and ponder!
***/ out of ****
Talley’s Folly continues through to June 28th in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuscivic.org/