At the heart of Talley's Folly, Lanford Wilson's gem of a play, is a variation on the eternal mystery of the egg, and Matt Friedman has driven from St. Louis to a farm near Lebanon, Missouri, with the firm intention of making an omelet with Sally Talley.
In a splendid revival by the Roundabout Theater of Wilson's Pulitzer-prize winning play from 1979, superbly acted by Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson and subtly directed by Michael Wilson, just cracking the egg open proves harder than Matt imagined.
The time is the summer of 1944. A war is winding down, and hope for the future is sweeping the country. The wartime setting is important. There is something about wartime that makes it easier to take risks, even the risk of an unlikely romance. And there are few romances more unlikely than the one Matt Friedman pursues with Sally Talley.
Matt, a wandering Jew of undetermined origin who has landed in St. Louis as a tax accountant, is regarded as something of an alien from another planet in the Missouri Ozarks. Sally is a renegade recluse and an embarrassment to her white-bread Protestant family. Each has secrets; both play their cards close to their vests. Indeed, any biographical data such as "Where were you born?" or "How old are you?" is treated as classified information to be given out on a strict need-to-know basis.
But there is a history between Sally and Matt, brief but indelible. There was one weeklong fling the previous summer that ended up at the old boathouse on the Talley farm, the folly of the title and the setting, re-created in marvelous detail by Jeff Cowie, for this showdown. Matt says last summer was an "affair"; Sally says it was not.
Since then, Matt has courted Sally through letters, phone calls, even a visit to the hospital in Springfield where she works as a nurse's aide, all despite her repeated pleas for him to stop. Today, Matt might be regarded as a stalker, but it is wartime and he is in love and he is convinced Sally feels the same if he could only break through the wall she has built around herself.
It is Matt who introduces the Humpty Dumpty theme, telling Sally about a man he knows who says people are like eggs, and that one has to be careful not to get too close to another person or the shell will crack. "But what good is an egg?" Matt asks. "Gotta be hatched or boiled or beat up into something, like a lot of other eggs. Then you're cookin'."
Wilson, who died in 2011, writes with a poet's touch. He was a founder of the old Circle Rep in New York, and there was a period from the 1960's through the 1980's when a new Wilson play appeared every year or two - Balm in Gilead, Hot l Baltimore, Fifth of July, Burn This, to mention a few - and each found a pulse of American life outside the mainstream.
Burstein and Paulson bring the poetry of Talley's Folly vividly to life with excellent performances. There is a high-voltage current running through Burstein's Matt that is grounded by Paulson's reserve, creating a force field that is at once electrifying and exciting to watch.
In an opening monologue Matt says the pas de deux that is about to take place is a waltz. It is a dance that Wilson, the director, has orchestrated with perfect timing. There are passages where the tempo may break into a fox trot or even a jitterbug, but Wilson never loses sight of the achingly tender love story underneath.
In that same opening speech, Matt at one point mentions the relatively short 20-day life span of bees and observes, "Whatever time there is in a life is a lifetime." It's a delight to have Lanford Wilson back on stage.