"If everything goes well for me tonight," says the shaggy Jewish accountant, taking the audience into his confidence, "this should be a waltz . . . a no-holds-barred romantic story." He is referring to the 97 minutes of courtship that follow and constitute the entire action of "Talley's Folly." Since everything eventually does go well for the improbable swain, Lanford Wilson's play, the fourth production of the Barter Theatre's winter season at George Mason University, is not without gentle appeal.
This is not a big drama, but it is a truthful one, about the heart's tug of war with itself. Even when people are made for one another -- as is clearly the case with Wilson's shambling accountant and the small-town Missouri spinster who has caught his eye -- they can't entirely throw caution to the wind. If "Talley's Folly" is a waltz, it's a hesitation waltz. The characters won't fall into step right off. Each has a few secrets from the past which must be exorcized, some simple inadequacies to be dealt with, some common fears to be appeased. Coming together is not so easy as it's cracked up to be.
There is, consequently, a charming skittishness to Wilson's dialogue, especially on the part of the spinster who desperately desires to break out of the confines of her claustrophobic family, but doesn't consider herself worthy of marriage. The accountant -- an affable bear of a man -- persists, more clumsily than not. But the trick is persistence. He will win the hand he's after. Since all this takes place in a delapidated Victorian boathouse on the moonlit evening of July 4, 1944, a sweet scent of nostalgia also characterizes the proceedings.
The Barter production, directed by Lawrence Kornfeld, captures many of the pleasures of Wilson's Pultizer Prize-winning work. Eugene Troobnick and Katie Grant are likable performers, whose qualities tend to grow on you. His woolly eagerness merely seems silly at first, while her reluctance registers as no more than girlish capriciousness. But as the characters allow their defenses to fall and expose the festerings in their soul to the cleansing air of summer, the actors approach the kind of dramatic complexity that intrigues. This is good, if not always beguiling, acting.
Bob Phillips' set is a fine evocation of a gingerbread boathouse that got out of hand, and Christopher H. Shaw has supplied both a setting sun and a rising moon to throw glints off the waters. As the accountant explains at the outset, "Valentines need froufrou."
"Talley's Folly" may be a valentine, a simple tale of wooing, but Wilson knows that no human endeavor, when it involves the heart, is ever really all that simple. A lot has to be uttered before his lovers can finally bring themselves to say an unqualified "yes."
TALLEY'S FOLLY. By Lanford Wilson. Directed by Lawrence Kornfeld; setting, Bob Phillips; costumes, Nancy Atkinson; lighting, Christopher H. Shaw. With Eugene Troobnick, Katie Grant. At George Mason University through Feb. 7.