The pantheon of onstage odd couples (Titania and Puck, Tony and Maria, Oscar and Felix) must have a special place for Matt Friedman and Sally Talley, the lone characters in Lanford Wilson’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly, now playing Off Broadway at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. It’s not just that the pair have nothing in common, although that’s true. Matt (South Pacific‘s Danny Burstein) is a 40-something Jewish refugee of unknown European origin now working as a tax advisor in St. Louis. He’s nebbishy and romantic and pronounces his words with a heavy schmear of Old New York vowels. Sally (American Horror Story‘s Sarah Paulson), full of Southern-bred poise and reserve, is 31 — or 27, depending on who’s asking — and still living with her wealthy Protestant family, who own a profitable share of a local garment mill in Missouri. It’s not just their backstories and accents that make Sally and Matt feel so mismatched. They almost feel as if they wandered into the theater from entirely different plays: Sally could be one of Tennessee Williams’ iron-willed belles rusted by age and secrets; Matt speaks a language of heavy-hearted humor that sounds a lot like Neil Simon-ese.
And that’s exactly why watching the sparks fly between them on a summer night in 1944 — presented here as a single 97-minute act — is so captivating. When the play starts, Matt has just shocked Sally’s uptight family with a surprise visit. He flees to the family’s old boathouse (really a run-down Victorian gazebo) to wait for Sally, who shows up none too pleased with his ambush. They’ve got history: a rocky courtship the previous summer that might’ve ended when Sally stopped replying to any of Matt’s letters. (”You do not have the perception God gave lettuce,” she hisses when he can’t grasp her rejection.) But Matt never gave up hope, and now here he is, asking Sally to reconsider him. He seems, at first, like a lovesick suitor who can’t tell when he isn’t wanted. But as both characters drop their guard, they each start to realize that nothing could be further from the truth.
What makes Talley’s Folly both dazzling and slightly infuriating is the way that all this comes out: in long, looping conversations in which nobody ever quite says what they mean (at least, not until the last five minutes or so of the show). Direct answers are deflected with just about every manner of defense, from obtuse anecdotes to non sequiturs to riddles-within-riddles. (Sally: ”English wasn’t your first language. What was?” Matt: ”Questions and answers. What is the shortest month? May is the shortest month, there are only three letters in May.”) Some of these stall tactics make sense for the characters, who are too smart for their own good and scared to expose themselves to heartbreak. But much of it just feels like Wilson’s way of turning a single, straightforward question (essentially, ”Will you marry me?”) into 97 minutes of banter. Lucky for us, he’s great at it — his dialogue is full of snap and humor. And this production has Paulson and Burstein to deliver his words, both of them in such fine control of their faculties as actors that their interplay is almost dancelike — which is especially appropriate given what Matt tells the audience in a monologue before Sally joins him onstage: ”If everything goes well for me tonight, this should be a waltz, one-two-three, one-two-three…” A?