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Love Is a Battlefield
By Ralph Hammann

Talley’s Folly
By Lanford Wilson, directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 9

Lanford Wilson is one of the great dramatic poets of America’s romantic past and disaffected present. The crumbling, peeling bygone grandeur of the belle époque and Victorian gingerbread is the setting for two of his best works, The Hot l Baltimore and Talley’s Folly. It is not that Wilson is a sentimentalist woefully mourning the past era; he is more the rationalist acknowledging the lovely idealism of the distant past and seeking a way to live in the fragmented present and uncertain future.

Talley’s Folly, which is informed by the lasting ravages that two world wars wrought on innocence and aspirations, will always have currency. Now, Wilson’s drama of loss is filtered through the dust of Sept. 11 and that swept up by the current desert storm abroad. Culture is continually degraded; artifacts, links to the past, and records of human achievement are lost, disintegrated in an instant.

Such weighty considerations are not immediately apparent in what seems to be a simple romance with undertones of comedy. But Wilson’s love story between Matt Friedman (Mark Nelson) and Sally Talley (Kate Jennings Grant) is about much more than two people’s attempts to connect and find meaning in an old boathouse on a farm near Lebanon, Mo., on the night of July 4, 1944. Their 97-minute courtship eventually erupts in emotional fireworks. In the course of the evening one senses that the world at war is never far from their bucolic setting.

Sally is a lovely near-spinster whose wit, intellect and sensitivity seem at odds with her rural surroundings and kinfolk who bear names like Buddy, Kenny, Lottie, Timmy and Olive. Although Sally puts on a no-nonsense front, one senses more kinship with her deceased uncle, an eccentric dreamer who built the boathouse to resemble a gazebo and whose architectural frills and frivolities grace parts of the town. A nurse’s aide in a Springfield hospital where she tends to men wounded in the war, Sally is a broken person with no seeming prospects save the one who has invaded her stable if sterile world.

The interloper is Matt Friedman, a Jewish refuge whose Prussian father and Ukrainian mother died when Matt was 11, during the first world war in a Europe of strictly enforced borders. Now Matt has ventured into a foreign territory that is beautiful yet inhospitable—rather like Sally—to such a wandering Jew as he. An accountant who dated Sally a year before, the rather poetical Matt has determined that this is D-Day for a last ditch effort to win Sally and, by extension, liberate her and himself.

Nelson nearly escapes the traps in playing Matt. The temptation is to be liked by the audience and to play Matt’s charm, hidden wounds and desperation. But the role also needs a degree of ruthlessness and manipulation, a darkness that Nelson is unwilling to fully explore. He manages the self-deprecating Jewish humor well and also hints at an edge of cruelty in his imitations of regional American accents (though I’d swear he is actually imitating Peter Sellers’ pool-table improvisation in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita).

As well, Nelson, who displays a wide range of dialects in his jousting jests, doesn’t provide a voice that is sufficiently ethnic to realistically establish Matt’s heritage and further underscore his alienation in the American Midwest (which he cuttingly refers to as the South, in an oblique reference to Southern prejudice). With a voice that has shades of Bert Lahr’s lovable woe and that seems to derive straight from Manhattan, Nelson charms but never alarms.

To his credit, Nelson pitches his love with utter earnestness and knowingly wheedles and cajoles as he masterfully delivers Wilson’s intoxicating wordplay and sails confidently on the crests and slopes of the poet-dramatist’s fascinating rhythms.

Her silences percolating with subtext, Grant is perfect as Sally. We see in her the former cheerleader whose life spirit has been driven within by the unyielding expectations of society. Grant presents a wall of requisite impediments for Nelson to surmount, but very cunningly leaves him sufficient footholds. It is an enormously appealing performance, and when Sally begins to let down her guard one feels danger, allure and a protective impulse.

Anders Cato uses the acting area well and creates a mood that is well-sustained, though I’d prefer a bit more romance in the depiction of the natural setting and boathouse so that it could offset the play’s underlying darkness. And I wish he had inspired in Nelson more of the take-no-prisoners approach that Cato fostered in last year’s revelatory hit, Miss Julie. Matt describes the play as a waltz; it would be appropriate to step on toes.

Carl Sprague’s striking set looks more bombed-out than decaying. If this is an attempt to reference the wars, it should have been resisted. Wilson’s text adeptly does this already. What is needed is a dreamy atmosphere that depicts an American world (along with its values) that is vanishing, not because of war but because of progress.

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team

Damn Yankees
Book by George Abbott, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, directed by James Warwick

The Colonial Theatre at Wahconah Park, Pittsfield, Mass., Aug. 3

That thousands of dollars were spent and that tremendous effort was expended on staging a musical in a baseball park may be significant, but the result is more of an event than an aesthetic triumph. Big in terms of audience size, the vast grandstand at Wahconah was filled with nearly 1,200 patrons. That only about a third of the seats were decent in terms of sightlines or obstructions (watching through the foul-ball screen is a novelty I’d readily forego) is another matter, but not one that seemed to faze the appreciative audience, who paid but $10 apiece.

It was also big in terms of the effort involved in constructing a lighting grid and roof over the large rented concert platform that served as a stage for designer Carl Sprague’s set. The setup was far from ideal, however, with the unexceptional set pieces marooned on an island that felt very far from the audience. The effect was that of watching an island ceremony from the deck of a cruise ship.

It was a given that actors would have to be miked in the vast field, but too often the technology drew attention to itself with booming voices, echoes and a flattening effect that only served to further distance the audience. One may just as well have been at a lip-sync show, with actors miming the story of old Joe Boyd, who sells his soul to the devil in order to be reborn as young Joe Hardy and help the Washington Senators win the 1956 pennant from the New York Yankees.

While one wouldn’t expect Darrell Pucciarello’s choreography to displace memories of that by Susan Stroman in the last Broadway revival of Damn Yankees, one could ask for more than a routine effort that barely bridged the gap between stage and stadium. What should be a showstopping number, “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.,” was especially disappointing. Lacking energy and inventiveness, it faltered physically as well as vocally. A forced Joan Barber got this labored effort off to a bad start, but the entire ensemble failed to pick up her ground ball.

The only element of the production that could inspire legitimate boasts of size was the 18-musician orchestra, excellent under Joel Revzon’s accomplished direction.

The show benefited enormously from two of its leads, Robert Hunt as Joe Hardy and April Nixon as Lola, the devil’s seductive assistant. Hunt convincingly managed to play multiple bases, allowing us to sense the presence of his former self at odds with his newfound fame and troubling (in light of the fact that as Joe Boyd he has a wife) attraction to Lola. His resonant voice surmounting the amplification traps, Hunt painted an instantly likable portrait of innocence and zeal that must finally succumb to pathos.

As the devilishly seductive Lola, Nixon defined stage presence as she filled the far reaches of the stadium with her vibrant sensuality. Sizzling through her early numbers, “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets),” she provided much more than brains and talent.

Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette gamely sang and acted with more heart than talent as coach Van Buren. The stunt casting appealed to the audience, but there was something gamey about the famous song “Heart,” which only got to first base when it should have been an automatic home run. But then, director James Warwick has admitted that he doesn’t know anything about baseball.

Absurdly given top billing for a supporting role, Maureen O’Flynn proved as bad an actress as she is fine an opera singer. With a characterization that was ridiculously girlish where it should have been elderly and maternal, O’Flynn skewed the character of Joe Boyd’s wife, Meg, in a direction never intended and awful to behold. As Applegate, the devil, Joseph Kolinski turned a plum role into a prune. Awkward, absent of requisite charm and silky elegance, he was more petty gangster than prince of darkness, more sleaze than Mephistopheles.

While the production as a whole never rose above minor league, Hunt, Nixon and the novelty of having hot dogs and beer at halftime made parts of it enjoyable. Whatever its artistic failings, Damn Yankees was a huge popular success, and there was a palpable feeling of community as patrons from all walks of life in the area appeared en masse to cheer the newest home team.

—Ralph Hammann

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