When it comes to all-American 31-year-old “spinster” Sally Talley (Rebecca Olson), 42-year-old Jewish bachelor accountant Matt Friedman (Mike Dooly) has nothing to lose. His family’s already dead. He feels “absurd” wherever he goes (“I’m walking into an unfriendly church in my underwear here”). So he’ll have to pitch a no-hitter of woo at this woman who by every indication loathes everything about him.
Stalker or a romantic? Since the setting for Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning 1979 dramedy is small-town Missouri in 1944, let’s go with the latter. It’s not hard to make that leap with Matt cooing Yiddish-influenced buttercream endearments. But it’s that same friendly unction that horrifies Sally and her WASP clan. All the action takes place at the Talley family’s boathouse (the eponymous “folly,” here a dilapidated mess of dark, twisty tree trunks, broken shutters, and grandiose columns designed by Craig Wollam). Meanwhile Sally’s uptight family is just up the nearby hill, and she periodically cries out to them for rescue from this relentless suitor.
With Dooly going full-tilt on loopy charm, including crackerjack character imitations, the thwarting falls thanklessly to Olson during the first half of the 97-minute mating dance. Olson’s very good, but Sally’s tight-lipped, cold-eyed blocking gets old fast. Something happened there at the folly the previous year—something that was great for Matt but rotten for her. Self-hating people like Sally instantly lose respect for anyone who likes them, so we share Matt’s frustration with her. But he has no boundaries and can’t take no for an answer, which raises the stalker-or-romantic question (especially when he physically obstructs her escape and stifles her screams with his hand). When Sally’s ice finally starts to melt, it becomes fun to watch her resist her own climate change. But still the flip side of the question lingers: Are we watching love or battle fatigue? (Shana Bestock directs these heartfelt hostilities.)
The play’s wartime context sets up modest expectations. With so many men gone, Sally’s marital prospects are nearly as poor as Matt’s (a Jew in St. Louis, where intermarriage is rare). Life’s not going to be smooth for these disparate two, despite their kindred unconventionality—and a dangerously neat plot turn late in the game. While Matt and Sally natter and divulge, the sallow, ebbing sunlight steals to silvery moonlight, like a sepia photograph in reverse. Although modern women might say guys like Matt are why the restraining order was invented, you can also see why Sally’s heart might undergo a late-inning reversal.
TALLEY’S FOLLY Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N., 524-1300, seattlepublictheater.org. $5–$32. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 31.