The moon is big and its light glows blue in Theater J’s revival of “Talley’s Folly,” the 1979 Lanford Wilson play that its narrator hopes is a waltz. Eventually that’s true, but the production at GALA Hispanic Theatre — the latest stop for the itinerant Theater J this season as its home base at the Edlavitch DCJCC on 16th Street NW is remodeled — doesn’t hit a swoony rhythm until nearly 90 minutes of testy, dry arguments between its two characters.
Those quarrels don’t need to feel as arid as they do in this handsome and intelligent but slightly distant accounting of Wilson’s play, in which the world flies apart but something — loss, bitterness and the blessing of wit — draws these two outsiders together. The Pulitzer-winning script deals with a Jewish immigrant named Matt Friedman trying to sweep rural Missouri woman Sally Talley off her feet in 1944, despite her anti-Semitic family’s objections. Matt has to unlock a secret that Sally’s keeping as they spar in a derelict boathouse — the Victorian “folly” of the title.
The script has aged just fine: The frictions Matt and Sally discuss still apply, from economic uncertainty (Matt is an apparently gifted accountant) to religion and workers’ rights (Sally, a nurse’s aide, got fired as a Sunday school teacher for setting aside the Bible and picking up Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class”). It’s a serious play with abundant sarcastic humor, in part because Matt in wooing mode styles himself as a hapless clown.
In John Taylor Phillips and Erin Weaver, director Aaron Posner has quick-thinking actors who feud with feeling, so this is never really a play that goes wrong. But it never goes all the way right, either, in one of those cases you boil down to chemistry. Phillips is agreeable as Matt addresses the audience directly at the beginning, but he also seems as fresh as the new suit he wears, despite the harried, baggage-packed life story he gradually unfolds for Sally.
Weaver brings punch to the battle, which unfolds in real time over “97 minutes,” as Matt tells us at the start. Like Matt, Sally seems isolated and punished by American life partly because she’s smart. Religion and gender definitely come into it; Matt and Sally rather effortlessly lampoon not only Sally’s backward family, but also, in a single punchline, much of the country.
But this is one of those plays where the leading characters ignore how obviously they fit together until it’s finally clear that they must give in, with Wilson layering in lots of nuanced anger about social structures that hoists the story into a satisfying realm. The rub here: Too seldom do you feel that the tragedy of Matt and Sally is that they are arguing from the same side.
Instead, Matt is daffy and persistent and Sally is grumpy and resistant, which makes the demonstrative boxing match a little too square. Set designer Paige Hathaway gives them a gorgeous, detailed ring in which to duke it out on GALA’s handsome stage, and hats off to Theater J and its hosts during this nomadic autumn, which have included the Kennedy Center for “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” and Arena Stage for “Actually.”
The design, lit softly by Jesse Belsky, packs in the lyricism that Wilson’s semi-cynical play flirts with and subverts, with that giant moon illuminating a boathouse so dilapidated that river grass pokes up through the floorboards. It’s the kind of place where two people could fall in love — a current that’s almost invisible in this hot-tempered, largely brainy rendition of the play.
Talley’s Folly, by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Aaron Posner. Costumes, Kendra Rai; sound design, Sarah O’Halloran. About 100 minutes. Through Dec. 30 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. $34-$64. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.