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Getting settled: Schaffer and Carey in Talley’s Folly.

Revisiting Romance
By Kathy Ceceri

Talley’s Folly
By Lanford Wilson, directed by Steve Fletcher
Curtain Call Theatre, through Feb.19

Lanford Wilson’s specialty is the comedy that leaves you crying, and Talley’s Folly, the 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning prequel to the post- Vietnam ensemble piece The Fifth of July, is the epitome of the genre. A quiet little two-character trifle—written, Wilson has said, to explain how Aunt Sally, born and raised to be a Southern belle, ended up married to an accountant from St. Louis named Matt Friedman—the play is a marvel for its ability to keep the audience engaged without revealing its most important secrets until the last possible moment.

It’s July 4, 1944, and Matt has driven his broken-down Plymouth to Sally’s home in rural Missouri and been chased down to the river by her shotgun-toting brother. When she finds him waiting for her in the neglected Victorian folly, Sally is anything but welcoming. Ever since their unlikely romance was kindled the year before, she’s been avoiding him, and now he’s come down to “settle this thing” one way or another. Matt is talkative, Sally is curt, and yet both are quick with a witty barb (his against this part of the country, hers against him).

“Sally, you don’t deprecate a man’s car,” Matt tells her. “A man’s car reflects his pride in himself and his status in society. Castigate my car, you castigate me.” To which Sally replies, “You may be full of hot air on most things, but you are right about that. That—that—hay baler!–-is a good reflection of you.”

And they have more in common. Matt, the unassuming tax accountant, is distrustful of authority. Sally, whose family owns the biggest factory in town, was fired from teaching Sunday School for reading The Theory of the Leisure Class to the factory workers’ children. We know why Matt, with his European Jewish accent, is an outsider (though how he got to Missouri is still a mystery) but not why Sally works at a menial job, still unmarried at 31. What we discover is that the obstacles to his characters’ romance are deeper than you’d find in a bedroom farce—or in the 1940s romantic films Wilson looked to for inspiration—but the resolution is, if anything, more joyous because of that.

Curtain Call’s production of this minor masterpiece leaves nothing to be desired. Wilson originally wrote Talley’s Folly as a showpiece for Circle Rep regular Judd Hirsch, and he uses Matt to show us the contingent of eccentric friends, neighbors and relatives every Southern writer must possess. At Curtain Call, Howie Schaffer as Matt gives a full-throttle performance that is just as rich and versatile as Hirsch’s was, while Kathleen Carey as Sally is cool and wry. Both look and feel just right for their parts, and the evocative design—including the suggestion of a boathouse by Malachi Martin, sepia-toned costumes by Janet Womachka, and lighting and sound by John E. Miller and Lori A. Barringer, respectively—makes the most of Curtain Call’s intimate space. Director Steve Fletcher pulls these elements together to create a series of tableaux that play out like memories projected on a screen: the bearded but nattily dressed European Jew, contrasted with the blonde with a patrician’s profile in a cream-colored dress, against a backdrop of lattice and rushes and an old canoe. There’s no doubt something meaningful is taking place here amid all the banter, and for the 97 minutes Matt promises us it will take, we’re happy to put ourselves in the hands of these capable artists and enjoy.

Time Has Come Today

Times Like These
Written and directed by John O’Keefe
Capital Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 20

There’s a moment late in Act II that captures the power of John O’Keefe’s 2002 play Times Like These: The khaki-clad husband spits at his wife, “You fucking Jew bitch,” his hands tightening around her throat, the gurgles escaping her despite his tightening fingers, the red of his face matching the color of his swatzika armband. The metamorphosis from middling actor/milquetoast hubby to mad Aryan über-Hamlet is as complete as his Jewish wife’s collapse from haughty, egotistical stage star to stunned victim.

Set in Germany 1933-1939, the play captures the indulgences, delusions, fears, and evasions of an actual acting couple, star Meta Wolf (Laurie O’Brien) and her husband, Oskar Weiss (Norbert Weisser); though playwright-director John O’Keefe has trimmed and rearranged the personal truths—the historical couple had a son who would have bogged down the play, and the historical Meta was never a star, while her Aryan husband Oskar Gottschalk was—the greater truth rings clearer.

That’s not to say that this is flawless theater: Even three years after the play’s initial L.A.-San Francisco run, the playwright-director and his costars often stumble through the frequent blackouts. The play’s structure is fraught with difficulties. Lines are said in the dark or as the lights dim/brighten, or the pair stare at each other in silence; the effect, repeated frequently, has the feel of a series of mistakes or missteps.

But then, if you were Jewish, staying in Germany in 1933 through 1939 was a series of mistakes and missteps, even if you were a celebrity. Meta and Oskar are in love—he with her, she with herself, the two of them in the reflected light of her acclaim. The play unfolds its sequence of blackout scenes, the lights dimming through Meta’s ever-more-desperate phone calls to former friends, associates and fellow elites, as she listens to ever-more- patriotic addresses on the radio and the dire warnings about “homeland security” in Germany’s perpetual “state of emergency.” The faux threat is from without, but the real terror is within. Bemoaning the clownish man who “was never liked very much” but yet rules “without a mandate,” Meta crumbles as she looks out the window at the reflected flames at the Reichstag and listens to the crush of glass of Kristallnacht.

O’Keefe powerfully uses Shakespeare (the first scenes from The Taming of the Shrew and then Hamlet), to show how artists Meta and Oskar use culture to highlight the hypocrisy of the state only to be co-opted. When Meta moans/whispers in Act II, “the play was in the audience long before it was on the stage,” the present audience must sense the poignance of the title.

The opening and closing scenes bookend this: Oskar applauding on his knees to his satin-clad star-wife, and Oskar weeping on his knees, clutching his nearly catatonic Meta as the security forces close in. Times Like These holds a mirror up to nature that no number of blackouts can dim, nor distance mar the reflection. This is the type of complex, challenging theater that Capital Rep does well, and would do well to do more of.

—James Yeara

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