Lanford Wilson: Great play revivals

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In an elegant stroke of happenstance, two works by this humane, surprising, stupendously prolific playwright are having major Off-Broadway revivals in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, “Talley’s Folly,” his moonlit valentine to unlikely love, will have its first New York production since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. Then, on March 17 at the Signature Theatre Company, “The Mound Builders” -- which ran just 29 performances in 1975 and was revived briefly in 1986 -- will be seen here for the first time in 27 years.

“Talley’s Folly,” with two characters and a huge heart, is set on a lake in southern Missouri in 1944. “Mound Builders” has a hefty ensemble of archaeologists, a real-estate developer and a lot of knotty Big Questions on a dig in southern Illinois. In 1979, Wilson told an interviewer that this was his favorite play, the one destined “to be what I’m known for.” Few agreed.

What a treat, then, to have the chance to get to know one of Wilson’s most accessibly beloved works and one of his reputedly most obscure. Jo Bonney, director of “Mound Builders,” told me in a phone interview that she “can’t wait to get over there” to see Michael Wilson’s staging of “Talley’s Folly,” what she calls “this parallel sibling.”

But how strange it feels to talk about Wilson, the master of lyric naturalism, as a figure from such a distant past. In the ’70s and early ’80s, he and director Marshall W. Mason collaborated on more than 50 productions at the Circle Repertory Company, which they formed with other alumni of the ’60s off Off-Broadway scene.

Many of us spent unforgettable evenings in the welcoming 140-seat brick space on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, where Wilson and Mason opened a major new play almost every year -- including their first commercial success, “Hot L Baltimore,” and many less urban plays.

It was the haven and home for Jeff Daniels, William Hurt, Kathy Bates, Christopher Reeve and countless others with big careers ahead. In 1984, a Chicago actress named Laurie Metcalf had a head-turning New York debut as an inarticulate hooker in a revival of “Balm in Gilead,” directed by a kid named John Malkovich. In 1987, he starred on Broadway in his own Wilson showcase, “Burn This.”

Wilson and Mason left Circle Rep in the mid ’80s, and the company closed forever in 1996. A restaurant is there now. Neither directors of the current revivals could explain why Wilson wrote so little, if at all, after “Redwood Curtain,” starring Jeff Daniels, crashed on Broadway in 1993. The playwright spend the rest of his years in the Sag Harbor house he bought in the ’70s with money he earned writing for a TV movie.

Although neither director of the current revivals was around during Circle Rep’s heyday, Michael Wilson (no relation to the playwright) does have vivid memories of being 10 and watching, wide-eyed, the short-lived “Hot L Baltimore” TV series. “My first association with Lanford was that he put drug addicts, hustlers and prostitutes in the center of a drama,” Wilson told me with a fond memory of young awe.

And here he is steeped in “Talley’s Folly,” which stars Danny Burstein as the 42-year-old Jewish immigrant (created by Judd Hirsch) and Sarah Paulson as the 31-year-old spinster from the wealthy Talley family from Lebanon, Mo. (the playwright’s birthplace). The play is a prequel to “Fifth of July,” the first in the Talley-family trilogy, set in the same old Talley farm on Independence Day, 1977.

Asked why the Pulitzer winner has not been revived before now, Wilson believes the challenge is finding the right cast. “The play is so gentle, delicate, so woeful about American life,” he adds, “Lanford brings it to the edge of sentimentality,” but then stops.

Wilson, the director, knows a few things about lyricism and about writers who celebrate their sense of place. Three years ago, he directed a magnificent production of Horton Foote’s nine-hour “The Orphan’s Home Cycle” at the Signature Theatre and, while artistic director of the Hartford Stage, he staged a 10-year retrospective of Tennessee Williams. He says Foote and Williams, like Lanford Wilson, use language as a kind of music. “It’s almost like a composition,” he says, “The action moves quickly, and then it earns its pause, its rest.”

Meanwhile, at the Signature, Bonney -- best known as a specialist in tough modern-guy plays -- is deep into her second Lanford Wilson work. For the Signature’s Wilson retrospective in 2003, she staged a wonderful and smart revival of “Fifth of July” that made me appreciate, yet again, how the playwright understood the nation’s post-Vietnam disillusionment -- what he called “the beautifully finessed betrayal of the peace movement.”

Before the Wilson season, Bonney read all his plays. When she tried reading “Mound Builder,” however, she remembers saying “ ‘Whoa.’ It was so complex on the page.” When asked to direct it, she says she read it three times. “Every time I went through it, I understood more and more about how rich it is. It is so inherently theatrical and dramatic... . There’s a genuine sense of discovery, the push and pull of the characters and class, how one culture has the right to disturb and invade another one. It was so prescient.”

She also appreciates the characters’ toughness, “how ironic that, when push comes to shove, all step up and protect their own agendas. He was such an incredibly honest playwright. There isn’t a false note.”

Wilson wrote with gentleness and fury about everyday people, often as they face the ends of their eras. When he died at 73 from complications of pneumonia, it felt like the end of one, too.

But maybe it was not.

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