IF YOU GO
What: Sparks fly as contrary lovers meet in an abandoned boathouse
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Dec. 16
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Cost: $40 & $45
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Show has no intermission; free parking across the street
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
FORT MYERS — Two-person shows allow actors to showcase their skills and often engage in an epic tug-of-war with their on-stage partner. "Talley's Folly," playing now at Florida Rep, sets a lovesick Chris Clavelli against a stony Rachel Burttram. The result is as lovely as it is perplexing.
Lanford Wilson's winsome 97-minute play, set near the end of World War II, examines the curious love affair between Jewish Matt Friedman (Clavelli) and reclusive, taciturn Missouri nurse Sally Talley (Burttram). The titular "folly" refers both to their meeting place, an abandoned boathouse, and to the characters' misconceptions about each other and love in general.
Florida Rep imported freelance director Jackson Phippin for this show. I see where he wanted to go, and what he wanted to happen, but many of the details never fall into place. Clavelli and Burttram give solid, competent, professional performances. Yet, the show rarely connects on a deep emotional level that would pull audiences into its moonlit pas de deux in a crumbling Victorian boathouse beside a glistening river with the scent of honeysuckle drifting in the air.
Longtime Florida Rep company member Clavelli, through no fault of his own, is miscast as the schlumpy accountant Matt; he never disappears into the character. The work required to mask his patrician profile and manner (hairpiece, beard, mannerisms, a grating accent) reduces his part to little more than a "performance" at times. He (and the audience) plainly enjoys the role, but he is not Matt and Matt is not him.
The actor toils to breathe life into the character. He succeeds during the lightest, most comedic moments and the heaviest, most dramatic scenes; everything else - which includes much of the play - feels flat. I loved the unexpected opening, where Matt "introduces" the play. Phippin lets Clavelli wander the audience instead of delivering the speech from the stage; early on, he tries to allow Matt to form a bond with the crowd. Wait for the rapid-fire retelling, where Clavelli spits back the entire speech in seconds.
One of the night's best, most touching - and most chilling - sequences comes as Clavelli describes how Matt made the journey from Lithuania to France to Germany to Norway to Caracas to America. The desperate, moving sequence sees Matt finally open his heart to Sally as he describes the loss of his family in the days before World War I. Clavelli brings all his skill as a dramatic actor to these scenes, dropping much of the facade he had erected for the character and simply pouring raw emotion into the words.
I do wish Matt's accent (the show credits dialogue coach Louis Colaianni) was more intelligible and less conspicuous. During many scenes, the nasal wheeze overran whatever Clavelli said and distracted mightily from the dialogue. "Talley's Folly" blooms with magic because it allows the love story to bloom - not because it flings Matt's Jewish heritage in front of the audience all night. An understanding of history becomes important, yes, (Phippin even inserts a two-page timeline and glossary into the playbill), but not paramount.
Native Southerner Burttram brings a bristling anger to her Sally; the accent vanishes as an issue here. If Clavelli gets the lion's share of the dialogue, Burttram gets the more difficult part, forced to craft a character solely from wounded looks, pouting glances and exasperated interjections.
The actress lifts the Sally character. Her facial expressions delight, such as the furtive looks as she sneaks gin from a hiding spot or the way she one-ups Matt by suggesting snakes nest beneath the gazebo. A wrinkled brow, crinkled eyes and clasped hands add dimensions to her performance.
Sally gets one major monologue, near the tail end of the play; Burttram seizes the moment with fury. Sally, her defenses finally broken, reveals her secret. In a wash of tears and a wail of despair, Burttram flees the boathouse for a tiny scull docked at the front of the stage. She allows the audience to feel Sally's pain, shame and sorrow - and later her hope at a new, brighter future.
Magical moments such as this fall few and far between though. So much of the play comes across forced, or at least not natural. Matt and Sally have met in the boathouse after a year apart. They love each other - but neither knows how the other feels. The play even describes itself as "a waltz, a no-holds-barred romantic story." Yet, the evening feels entirely academic and mechanical - just an exercise in moving actors from place to place and saying words at specific times.
Phippin attempts to keep his duo in constant motion, bouncing them like a hyperactive ping-pong ball over the stairs, steps, levels, dock and benches of Richard Crowell's gorgeous boathouse. He wants the play to resemble a dance, with one partner moving and another following; there's even an ice-skating sequence that makes the comparison explicit. The non-existent chemistry hampers his efforts even as the actors work overtime to forge a connection.
So many times throughout the night, I wanted to get lost in the love story, the desperate way that Matt needs Sally or the longing that Sally has for a life anywhere but Lebanon, Missouri. It never happens, even as Matthew McCarthy's delicate moonbeams glimmer across the stage or crickets, frog calls and the woof-woof of a distant dog resound; Kate Smith designed the show's realistic soundscape.
Crowell's ramshackle structure, with broken latticework, weathered trim and cracked board, is executed to perfection by Florida Rep's scene shop. The boathouse/gazebo functions like a third character - one with a distinct personality. It shelters the pair, wraps them in a cocoon of weeds and lush, nigh-blooming flowers and opens to fairy-tale dreams wrought on moon light and sent skittering across the shining river. Roberta Malcom's beautiful but simple costumes - a tailored dress for Burttram and a brown suit for Clavelli - evoke the Depression years.
"Talley's Folly" offers an interesting, if flawed, portrait of a love affair. The performances soar but never connect. Enjoy Burttram's tough, vivid Southern sparkler and the lush, romantic set that might have you rushing to call architects for a folly all your own.
Have you ever seen an authentic folly? Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.