This contrast of destinies is one of the themes in Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Talley's Folly, in which a deeply scarred Jewish immigrant from World War II-ravaged Europe, Matt Friedman, attempts to woo Sally Talley, the daughter of a WASP family in Lebanon, Missouri. The Talley family's business has been revived by military contracts, and some of Sally's relatives are now quite comfortable in their anti-Semitic bigotry.
Wilson's frequently amusing and borderline maudlin two-person play loads a heavy burden on the brace of actors and their director, to show how the wisecracking but achingly sincere Matt attempts to break through Sally's ingrained cynicism and mysterious pain. Unfortunately, in a rare misstep for Ensemble Theatre this season, director Lucia Colombi and her potentially talented cast manage to get almost everything wrong in this production, turning what Matt predicts will be a "1-2-3 waltz" with a romantically happy ending into a clumsy box-step with far too many toes crunched in the process.
This fragile Matt-Sally relationship -- sparked by a magical night a year earlier and barely sustained by a one-way stream of letters from him to her ever since -- is now being confronted face-to-face in a dilapidated boathouse on Talley property. Matt has driven 200 miles to see Sally on this Fourth of July evening in 1944, since she's never responded except for a terse request asking him to stop writing. She turns out to be no more encouraging in person, asking Matt to leave, even as he tries to change the subject -- to her job as a nurse's aide, his facility with numbers (he's an accountant), and the need for unionized factories.
For the bulk of the nearly 100-minute one-act, Matt tiptoes on a high wire as he tries to maintain his conversational balance with Sally, hoping for an emotional breakthrough. By employing his wit, he manages to keep her sufficiently interested: In response to one of Sally's admissions, he says in disbelief, "I've never met anyone who's been fired from teaching Sunday school!" (She was cashiered for straying from the gospel and reading the works of a contemporary philosopher.) Indeed, Wilson's script is studded with clever ripostes and inventive forays, designed to show how Matt skillfully maneuvers a meaningful connection with Sally.
From the beginning, however, Scott Miller as Matt never fully embodies this fascinating, driven individual. His initial entrance and presentational monologue, a preamble to the play itself, is largely devoid of the humor that should animate this offbeat introduction. Stiff of body and lacking requisite charm, Miller is too much the stereotype accountant and too little the romantic and feverish dreamer. And once Sally arrives, many of Matt's deft conversational pirouettes, emerging comically from his lack of social grace, remain anchored in Miller's enervating delivery. It also doesn't help that the character's European accent only peeks out now and then from the actor's normal voice pattern.
Elizabeth Ann Townsend's Sally, meanwhile, is confusing in a different way. The supposedly hard-shelled Sally spends much of the play beaming at Miller, apparently finding him entirely more magnetic than anyone else will. But this fixed grin is curious, since by all accounts Sally has been so standoffish and aloof. By not bringing more nuance to her early reactions to Matt, Townsend fails to lay the foundation for her later catharsis, which comes off as forced.
Throughout the play, neither character is really sure what he or she wants from the other -- a difficulty that should be handed to director Colombi. Matt slips into an old pair of ice skates he finds in the boathouse, hobbling on the blades and then tumbling down, to lure Sally into helping him and defrosting her (supposedly) chilly exterior. But the scene never registers, with Miller conveying all the subtext of a weekend hockey player shopping for equipment at Dick's. Only for fleeting moments in the second half do Miller and Townsend manage to spark briefly, but their lack of chemistry defeats any budding passion.
Ron Newell's fragmented set is properly run down, but the lighting by Kenneth Martin (red stars in the sky to indicate dusk?) and sound by Casey Jones (a faraway band blares, as if it's floating on a barge 10 feet from the dock) don't add to the ambiance. It's been an artistically successful and at times inspired season for Ensemble, but it ends with a waterlogged Folly.
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