PROVO — Talley’s Folly, we are told from the start by the play’s protagonist, Matt Friedman, is a romance—a waltz—played out in three-four time over the course of ninety-six minutes (though this particular production was probably closer to eighty) without an intermission; all the action occurs in one place (a little gazebo-like boathouse) and in real time. The play has exactly two characters—Matt Friedman and Sally Talley, both single, and both feeling the loneliness of their age. Sally is, according to the script, 31, and Matt is 43; both wonder if they’ve missed the boat in sharing their lives with someone else.
Lanford Wilson’s play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979, and in the thirty-one years since, it’s become a small classic of American theater. It’s a love story, a comedy, a drama, and a tiny little history play; there’s beauty in the way Wilson captures the gentle drama of two tiny lives caught in the midst of the Second World War, and a perfect balance between the characters and the forces around them and outside their world—forces that shape them. It’s an intimate story; as a result, it’s a perfect fit for the intimate space of the Covey Center’s Brinton Blackbox Theater. But intimate can be hard.
Kudos should go to set designer Paul Yeates for some very lovely work. The boathouse takes up the Covey space, but never overpowers it. The quiet sound design—with crickets, bullfrogs, and the occasional jazz song floating out over the river—is just as important in creating an atmosphere. Between these production elements and the two fine performers, it’s not hard to imagine oneself on the Talley property in Missouri of 1943.
Carrie Morgan plays Sally, and she has a natural presence and effortless gift for comedy that brings the character to life. Her Sally lacks confidence, but she also radiates energy; she is blunt and fragile, both aware that men are attracted to her and also deeply afraid of allowing herself to be vulnerable. Morgan conveys all these layers without ever being showy, or even looking like she’s trying.
Randy King does double duty as the show’s director and its star. His Matt Friedman elicits most of the show’s laughs, although there are also a few moments when his comedic delivery feels a little forced. Both Morgan and King have an admirable command of their respective dialects, which very rarely got in the way of the performances (Sally is a Southern girl, and Matt was originally a European Jew).
What the show lacked more than anything was shape. Despite its brief running time, the pacing lags in places, the rhythm isn’t always there in Matt and Sally’s exchanges, and the story doesn’t have as much momentum or arc as it might. It’s clear that both Morgan and King are very gifted actors and well cast in their roles, but their interactions often lack a sense of definition. With a show that is entirely driven by dialogue, by the the interactions between characters, and by small moments, this is a production that might have benefited from the objectivity of a third-party director. Randy King is as fine and experienced a director as he is an actor, but Wilson’s script may ultimately just be a bit too heavy for one pair of shoulders. Like their characters, Matt and Sally, it seemed as if these two actors just needed someone else, another set of eyes to recognize and help bring out the greatness already inside them. There is a moment in the play in which Matt reads to Sally from a small notebook, but as an audience we can see there’s nothing written in it. It was a tiny detail, but it was this sort of attention to detail that seemed to me to be missing from the play. King and Morgan give two of the better performances I’ve seen on a Utah stage in awhile, but I was still somehow left with the sense that these two performers could have been not just good, but brilliant.
As a result, Talley’s Folly at the Covey Blackbox is a very good, enjoyable, and admirable production, but it doesn’t quite achieve the transcendent possibilities of its script. Still, it isn’t often one gets the chance to see this show with actors as fine as these. It might not change your life, but it’s a very good way to spend ninety-six minutes. Or even just eighty.