Taking a gamble on a two-actor show

I was a little hesitant when I went down to Greene last Friday for the opening night of “Talley’s Folly” at the Chenango River Theatre. I guess it didn’t register with me when they sent the press release, but I Googled it to find out a little more about it (like a Boy Scout, I try always to be prepared) and it dawned on me that this was a one-act play. Ninety or so minutes. With two characters.

It’s not something you see on the stage too often, a single act play with only two speaking roles. And, quite frankly, from an audience perspective, it’s a gamble. You’re stuck with these two actors for the entire duration of the play – and without an intermission? Forget it. This could well be recipe for disaster. If you’re not instantly and irresistably connected with both actors, it can be a very long hour and a half.

Fortunately for me, and I think for you, “Talley’s Folly” literally flies by. I didn’t once look at my watch or have that uncomfortable “make this be over” moment that so often happens when you fail to make that connection, made all the more crucial by the intimacy of a two-man show.

And that’s what Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” is all about, really – connections. The play’s set on the 4th of July in Lebanon, Missouri in 1944. In early evening, we see a dilapidated boathouse on the farm of the Talley family in the bucolic countryside. Matt Friedman (Drew Kahl) a nebbish immigrant accountant, introduces us to the setting, which he intends to be the scene of his proposal to the reluctant spitfire Sally Talley (Elizabeth Raetz), who seems determined to head for spinsterhood.

Matt knows it will be a difficult task to get Sally to say yes. They’d met a year ago, had a whirlwind if awkward courtship, and went their separate ways. Well, not entirely. While Matt toiled away as an accountant in St. Louis, he took time every day to write a letter to Sally. She claims, of course, that she didn’t read them. That they never made her laugh. That they never touched her heart. But we know early on that Sally’s just putting on a brave and brazen front. Somewhere behind all that vinegar, there’s a heart that’s yearning to be loved.

That’s the crux of “Talley’s Folly” – that leap of faith that we all must take from a place of hurt and rejection to a place of love and acceptance. To say that Sally and Matt have a lot of baggage is an understatement. Even though the year is 1944, their individual stories would be just as juicy and compelling on “Dr. Phil” today. It’s easy for us as the audience to see that these two are meant to be together, and yet we’re compelled over the course of those 90-odd minutes to see just how they find their way into each other’s arms. Again, like in life, it’s all about the journey.

Thankfully, we have two tremendously talented actors to take us on that journey. As I stated earlier, in the hands of lesser actors, less engaging personalities, “Talley’s Folly” could be a very long spell. Kahl and Raetz have an amazing chemistry on stage. He of the frantic and earnest, she of the defensive and acerbic. How they push each other’s buttons and unravel each other’s secrets over the course of the play ranges from the tearfully poignant to the side-splitting hysterical. And, as someone who can scarcely memorize a phone number or grocery list, I am in awe of Kahl and Raetz, who not only memorized an hour and a half of non-stop dialogue, but batted every word out of the park, too.

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention some of the behind the scenes talent. And here that’s pretty much all wrapped up in Bill Lelbach, who is not only the creative genius behind the Chenango River Theatre itself, but also serves as director and set designer for “Talley’s Folly.” Truth be told, good direction should blend into the background given good actors and a good script. If you get lost in the show, it shouldn’t be noticeable at all. That can’t be said, however, for the sets. Like most Chenango River Theatre productions, there’s only one here, but it’s amazing. The Talley boathouse (the Victorian “folly” of Sally’s great uncle) is at once sad and majestic, the remnants of a bygone era that somehow hold home and promise for the future. Painstakingly detailed, it’s nothing like what I’ve been accustomed to seeing elsewhere (I’m talking about you, painted plywood high school props).

Sadly, “Talley’s Folly” is the last show of the season for the Chenango River Theatre, a venue I’ve grown to love and make habit. The good news is that I went on opening weekend, so you’ve still got time to take my advice and go see it. There are shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 – and then again for the next weekends through Oct. 18. For ticket information, call 656-8499 or visit www.chenangotheatre.org.

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