Sunday, August 21, 2011

more reasons why I hate TALLEY'S FOLLY

A year ago I blogged about how much I dislike TALLEY'S FOLLY. Some have suggested to me that I saw a bad production - I saw a community theatre version in Haddonfield New Jersey almost 20 years ago. I barely remembered the play except for how bored I was. Wikipedia provided a synopsis that makes it clear that the Matt character in the play is a flat-out stalker. But I decided to read the play to see if maybe it was the fault of the production or the fault of Wikipedia.

No, the fault is entirely the play's.

People are always quick to tell you that when it comes to writing for theatre, you should "show not tell." These are the same people who think that TALLEY'S FOLLY is a wonderful play in spite of the fact that it is 10% show and 90% tell.

Now, about the stalking. Early on in the play, Matt says to Sally:
Were you hiding behind the curtains when I was out in the yard talking to your brother? You like to hide from me so much.
But no does not mean no in this play. Because as any stalker knows, their love-object really truly does love them, deep down, no matter how much they protest otherwise. And since this play is a stalker's fantasia, Wilson comes through for his stalker:

Also, I talk to the patients at the hospital, remember? Some are not so young. And they all say "Are you Sally's beau? Every time we say something sweet to Sally, try to get fresh, she says 'Come on now, I got a beau."
Stalking her at her place of employment is not enough for Matt, however, and not only is Matt not ashamed about being a stalker, he brags about it, with the most noxious metaphor possible:

Oh my goodness. She does have a vanity as well as a temper. You are thirty-one because you were fired from teaching Sunday school on your twenty-eight birthday and that was three years ago.




I've become great friends with your Aunt Charlotte. There's a counterspy in your home. You're infiltrated. I didn't tell you. You're ambushed. I've come up on you from behind.


When did you talk to Aunt Charlotte?


Last year. For a second today. And every few weeks during the winter. On the telephone. (He laughs.) I never heard of anyone being fired from Sunday school before.
So how does this woman who has a temper respond to humiliation and gross privacy violation? Like this:


I quit. We didn't get along.

To have her respond in a way that a person with a temper would respond would work against the narrative that says that Matt will win her in the end.

Matt's charm offensive doesn't end with the stalking, however. He's not afraid to use physical force - many times throughout the play Sally tries to leave the boathouse and he stops her by holding her back or blocking the door:

-Get gone now. Leave before I hit you with something. You can walk to the Barnettes', they'll give you some gas for a couple of coupons.


Now who is making the disturbance?


(Angry, quite loud.)

Get off this property or get out of my way so I can go back to the house, or I'll disturb you for real.


We are going to settle this before anyone goes anywhere.


I won't be made a fool just because I fell in love again, Matt, and I won't be pushed around again.


You're not getting away from me.


Get out of here!


Do you realize what you said? Did you hear yourself?


(Yelling toward the door.)

Buddy! Cliffy! Here he is. Matt Friedman is down here!

(Her last words are muffled by Matt's hand as he grabs her and holds her fast. She tries to speak over his lines.)


(Grabbing her.)

Vilde chaya! you are a crazy woman! We could both be shot with that gun. People do not scream and yell and kick.

(She stops struggling.)

People are blessed with the beautiful gift of reason and communication.

(He starts to release her.)




(Grabbing her again.)

How can such a thing happen? When they passed out logic everybody in the Ozarks went on a marshmallow roast. You are rational now?

(He releases her. She moves away. Matt stands where he can block her exit.)

Life is going to be interesting with you. Are you hurt?

Is there anything more repulsive than a thug using physical force against someone he is supposed to love, and then lecturing her on the proper way for people to behave?

Of course the lesson here is that bitches is crazy, but if you impose your will on them long enough they'll come around and be "rational" and you can have a life together.

And there's an important reason why Matt just happens to use Yiddish during the struggle which I will get to in a moment.

But Matt is not done charming this woman yet:


I am foolish to insinuate myself down here and try to feel like one of the hillbillies. Who ever heard of this Friedman? I don't blame you. I won't be Matt Friedman any more. I'll join the throng. Call myself... August Hedgepeth. Sip moonshine over the back of my elbow. Wheat straw in the gap in my teeth. I'm not cleaning my glasses, I'm fishing for crappies. Bass.


Sun perch.


Oh heck, yes. Only I'm not. I can't even take off my shoes without feeling absurd.


People don't walk around with their shoes off here, sipping moonshine. It isn't really the Hatfields and the McCoys. The ones who go barefoot only do it because they can't afford shoes.
So Matt is bigoted, domineering and a stalker. And he manages to win Sally over to him in ninety minutes (more about that later.) How could such a character possibly be set up as a romantic lead? I think this section makes it clear how:


...and Buddy came - does your entire family have such absurd names?


His real name is Kenny. We call him Buddy.


Kenny? Is his real name? This is better, for a grown man? Kenny? Kenny Talley, Lottie Talley, Timmy Talley, Sally Talley? Your brother also does not know how to converse. Your brother talks in rhetorical questions. "You're Sally's Jewish friend, ain't ya? What do you think you want here? Did you ever hear that trespassing was against the law?"

Kenny has a good reason for telling Matt he's trespassing - he told him to leave because Sally wasn't there. And Matt refuses to go. So why is Buddy the bad guy and Matt the hero of this passage?


Matt's from an oppressed minority so he's allowed to be completely obnoxious and still get the girl.

Still not convinced? Imagine how obnoxious Sally would sound if she said this to Matt: "What kind of names are those? Schlomo, Golda, Moishe, Uri?" She even says at one point that he shouldn't make fun of her accent because she wouldn't make fun of his. But the normal rules of polite behavior do not apply to Matt, because he is a victim of anti-Semitism.

Now as much as I loathe this play, Wilson, in his introduction to the published version, reveals it could have been much worse. Wilson writes:
Everyone loved it, that is, except Marshall W. Mason, who was to direct. After many glowing comments and applause, Marshall and I retired to his office. He had (ominously) said nothing during the discussion period. I thought the play was perfect, so I had quite a chip on my shoulder. He said something like, "So the story is, essentially, Matt comes down to Lebanon and browbeats this girl into hysterical admission that she's barren." I said yes and he said "What's fun about that?" He pointed out that with Matt knowing she couldn't bear children he didn't even have to tell her he refused to bring children into the world. Except for being turned down, he had nothing more at stake. He didn't even have to browbeat her, he could just say Lottie told me. It wasn't even dramatic. His actions were brutal with little cost to himself.
All true enough, but please note that in spite of these glaring flaws "everyone" - that would be the Circle Rep play reading group - loved it, and Wilson himself thought it was "perfect." Wilson continues:
However, if he did not know her situation, then he would first have to tell Sally that he refused to have children and ask if she would have him in that condition. He had to risk something. Marshall must have been very convincing because the chip fell off my shoulder and very soon I was taking notes. I rewrote the middle third of the play. It was much more dramatic... Marshall said, "Let's read it. I'll read Matt, you read Sally.

OK, so Wilson rewrote some of this "perfect" play, but there was still a huge problem:
I had sat there as Sally, watching Matt jump through hoops, and all I said was "Oh Matt" and "Come on now, Matt." I didn't like my part. And I especially didn't like it when Matt finally told me he wanted to marry me but he didn't want kids. The writer had not provided me with the obvious response: "Who told you I couldn't have children?" I sat there livid because he had made me feel terrible about his lousy childhood and I thought it had all been a ploy. And all I did in the script was cave in. Back to the typewriter. Sally's part grew by a third. It is still not as flamboyant as Matt's but I think she now holds her own. She is much stronger and much more her own woman. We finally had a play.
I would argue Wilson is giving himself too much credit here - as I've demonstrated, Sally is a sap when it's narratively convenient. But then Wilson admits there are still problems with the final version of the play - the version that won the 1980 Pulitzer for drama:
If Matt knows she can't have children and it takes the whole play for him to convince Sally it's OK that she can't have children - it's a story. If he doesn't know and he presents his resolution, and then finds out she can't have children anyway - it's a plot. What happens is a very strange phenomenon. When Sally finally screams out in desperation, "I can't have children, I can't bear children!" there is an almost audible click as the last piece of the plot locks into place. It is an enormously satisfying moment. We feel the perfection of it. But it is also terribly disappointing. We feel like we have been manipulated. This has all been a carefully worked out artifice... that's what a plot this starkly presented does. It underlines the artifice... we decided to live with it.
Now give me that Pulitzer.

Now the repulsiveness of Matt's character is not an issue for Wilson because, as I said, Matt gets an asshole license due to anti-Semitism. But the problem with the plot as-is goes beyond the "perfection" of its artifice. Wilson has set up a situation where a woman is interested in a man, but tells him to go away many many times, presumably because she can't have children. But if that's the issue, why didn't she just tell him she can't have children and see what he says?

But if that is really why she rejects him, why wouldn't she immediately respond, when he tells her he doesn't want children, that she can't have children? Instead he has to drag it out of her. No matter how many times Wilson has someone tell us that Sally is strong, what he shows us instead is that Sally is a dithering, childish cipher who has to be browbeaten and physically restrained by Matt.

And are we to believe that because she can't have children, Sally has sworn off men forever? And that only a browbeating stalker who doesn't want children and is eleven years older could possibly make her interested in sex, love and marriage again? Are we supposed to believe that Sally is going to end up an old maid unless Matt comes along, like Mary in the George Bailey-free alternate universe in "It's a Wonderful Life?" That movie has the excuse of being made in the 1940s. TALLEY'S FOLLY was written in 1979.

Finally, the device of having Matt speak to the audience at the beginning of the play, telling us up front that he's going to try to get the girl, adds nothing to the story.

But worse than not adding to the story, it does two things that work against the play:

It puts Matt and Sally on an even more unequal footing by making Matt the omniscient narrator and Sally just a character behind the fourth wall, and it puts the audience in the position of being confederates of Matt in his campaign to win Sally. And while the mood lighting mentioned in the beginning of the play isn't objectionable, by the end of the play we've learn he's spied on her and we see him use physical force to get his way. And his little winking aside to the audience at the end of the play: :

(takes out his watch, shows time to Sally and then the audience) ...right on the button. Good-night

- is creepy, precious and smug, all at the same time.

I've been sponsoring weekly play readings for almost eleven years now, in New York City, and I've seen actors make really crappy plays sound good. Skilled and appealing actors can work wonders on bad scripts. And Wilson had access to a very high caliber of actor for his work by the time he wrote TALLEY'S FOLLY. But what those not-so-great actors in Haddonfield New Jersey made plain to me, and what the text itself and Wilson's own comments make plainer is that this is actually a poorly thought-out play with a repulsive character as a romantic lead, Pulitzer Prize voters be damned.