Love stories in the theater are seldom as satisfying as "Talley's Folly," Lanford Wilson's 1980 Pulitzer-winning valentine to unlikely romance and finely wrought sentences.
Some of us would have preferred that one of Wilson's tougher and less tidy works had been singled out for the late playwright's biggest prize. ("Fifth of July" would be my choice.) But "Talley's Folly," for all its sweetness, is peopled with smart characters with savvy world views, surprisingly congruent emotional damage and a no trivial amount of charm.
This is the first New York revival in all these years, and it's a beauty. Director Michael Wilson, a specialist in distinguishing between folksy and hokey, has put together this midlife dream of a romance with all the awkward delicacy and physical style such characters deserve.
Our guide is Matt Friedman, 42, who had a brief fling with Sally Talley, 31, the previous summer in the neglected Victorian boat house (designed by Jeff Cowie) on the estate of her dirty-rich Missouri relatives. They call him a commie and that "hairy Jewish accountant." It is July 4, 1944. And he has just 97 minutes, he tells us at the start, to convince her that was no fling.
From that opening moment, Danny Burstein has us rooting for Matt -- a role written especially for Judd Hirsch. Burstein, a terrific character actor blossoming into a powerfully unconventional leading man, sets the stage for the courtship, deftly embodying both narrator and suitor as we are made complicit with both moonlight and plan.
Sarah Paulson has golden-girl delicacy and survivor resilience as Sally, dismissed by the family as an eccentric old maid with secret shame. Matt and Sally trade their secrets with reluctant courage and no small amount of physical comedy. Lovely.
WHAT "Talley's Folly"
WHERE Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., Manhattan
INFO $71-$81; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE sweet and painful, altogether satisfying romance
The onion is peeled
Two years ago, Rajiv Joseph made his name with two deliriously original plays with striking titles -- "Gruesome Playground Injuries" and, his Pulitzer finalist, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo." Robin Williams played the big cat in that work's grossly underrated Broadway premiere.
Now Joseph is back with his latest, "The North Pool." This one not only has less distinctive a title. Alas, it has far less of a punch.
The situation has promise. Khadim, an Arab transfer student (the charismatic and subtly changeable Babak Tafti) is called to the vice principal's office. The high school's bell has already announced spring break, but Dr. Danielson (Stephen Barker Turner) pretends he just wants to get to know the new kid -- you know, ask how he is getting along.
But Danielson is more than a little weird -- insecure, full of cornball inspirational sayings and an ominous, ultimately irrelevant facility with numbers. So our trust goes immediately with Khadim, who, until lies are revealed, seems to be an eager, bright student.
The vice principal frequently notes that perception is an "onion." Not surprisingly, our perceptions of both men are peeled and peeled again. Ultimately, we find that both of them are terrible people, but not in interesting ways. The title relates to air-raid shelters and Cold War history. The crisis revolves around the suicide of a girl student. The more we learn about the men, they and their mystery both seem bogus.WHAT "The North Pool"
WHERE Vineyard Theatre, 108 E.15th St., Manhattan
INFO $85; 212-353-0303; vineyardtheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Disappointing follow-up by distinctive young playwright
Ho-hum in Paris
Amy Herzog, probably the most frequently produced young playwright in New York, has thus far written such delicately observed, dispiritingly conventional work as "After the Revolution" and "4000 Miles."
One can't say that about "Belleville," which at least takes her domestic characters out of their mundane psychological territory and into the real pathology of an attractive young American couple living in a working-class neighborhood in Paris.
The tension is sustained as secrets pile up in director Anne Kauffman's production, though not all the blocking makes final sense. Maria Dizzia is deftly cuddly and off-putting as the wife, so high strung we understand why nobody takes her yoga class. Greg Keller, playing a physician with Doctors Without Borders, at first seems a hero to put up with her.
Despite intense and transparent performances, including two by the French-African landlords (Pascale Armand and Phillip James Brannon), the problems of this glum couple start out tiresome, then grow into the unbelievable and, finally, snowball into an unearned crash into the abyss.
WHERE New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.. Manhattan
INFO $70; 212-279-4200; nytw.org
BOTTOM LINE Attractive couple with tiresome pathologies