“Tally’s Folly” contains at least one of those Herculean roles a stage actor can hope to play two or three times in his career. In Lanford Wilson’s two-character play, first produced in 1979 and running at Palm Beach Dramaworks through Nov. 11, the character of Matt Friedman is onstage for every second of the 97-minute running time. There are no breaks, no intermissions and nary a silent moment. Indeed, the role requires a tremendous feat of memorization, because Matt Friedman is a talker – a modern, motor-mouthed Jewish intellectual with opinions on everything.
In the opening moments, he breaks the fourth wall even before the walls are established, notifying the audience of the play’s duration and riffing on bees, dogs, the set design (a ramshackle boat house in rural Missouri on July 4, 1944) and anything else that wanders aimlessly along his cerebral cortex. After a few minutes of that, he decides to start the entire narration over, for the “late comers,” and proceeds to repeat everything at lightning speed.
The actor in Dramaworks’ production is Brian Wallace, a non-local whose invisible performance is a 90-minute master class in character absorption. Exhibiting endless reserves of energy, Wallace never misses a beat or flubs a line, running so fluidly on autopilot that the mechanics of acting are never present. He has a wonderful rapport with Erin Joy Schmidt, a familiar face in South Florida theater, who plays Sally Tally, his love interest. Matt and Sally had met briefly the summer before, with the smitten Matt writing unanswered letters to Sally ever since. “Tally’s Folly,” which takes place in real time, finds Matt barging onto Sally’s family’s boathouse uninvited, with a head full of memories and impersonations and an engagement ring in his pocket.
The play is about the push-pull of attraction and repulsion – the uneasy sensations that manifest when the brain and heart want different things, and only one can win out. Schmidt plays Sally like the comic foil to Wallace’s gregarious lead, suffering his chatty impositions; Wallace’s ceaseless jabbering effectively shows how his character evades the real purpose of his visit with plenty of sound and fury that signifies nothing. They dance and dodge around their potential future together until a pair of revelations force them to confront it.
With just two characters and a single set, you’d think “Tally’s Folly” would be a perfect fit for Dramaworks’ older, smaller location on Banyan Boulevard. But the expansive, dilapidated resplendence of Michael Amico’s scenic design – the moss-covered boathouse with its rickety wooden boards, hole-punctured boat hulls and assemblage of memories stored in crates and barrels – benefits greatly from the enlarged space. A small stage would limit the character’s movements, situating them always close to one another. But in Dramaworks’ large house on Clematis Street, the stage is big enough for director J. Barry Lewis to create vast separations between the characters that mirror the detachment of their mating rituals, in which they speak of their troubles in the third-person.
Other, even subtler technical elements enhance the vividness of this experience. Ron Burns’ lighting design gradually, and unnoticeably, transforms late afternoon into evening, and Matt Corey’s sound design is, as usual, peerless: None of his effects sound canned, and the tweeting birds, barking dogs and patriotic music create a sense of distance between the secluded boathouse and the revelry occurring just across the river.
All of that said, “Tally’s Folly” is not a particularly exciting play. Despite the remarkable professionalism and skill of everyone involved, I counted at least a half-dozen sleepers in the upper-level seats, and I, too, checked my watch a few times. I’m confident Lewis did a great job directing the material as it’s written, but if it were composed today, it might benefit from a trim.
“Tally’s Folly” is at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., through Nov. 11. Tickets are $55. Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.