Body Politic Theatre

A few years ago a friend of mine told me he had quit going to movies and plays, watching TV, and reading fiction because he felt that all story telling–whether it took place in a book, in a theater, or on the screen–was basically immoral. In his view, every story in some way manipulates its audience, toying with its feelings or subtly influencing its opinions, and well-told stories manipulate even more subtly than the poorly told ones. Such manipulation, he felt, is wrong.

Of course, most people read fiction, watch TV, and go to the theater and the movies precisely because they want to be manipulated. They want to be drawn out of themselves, subtly convinced to take seriously the problems and adventures of imaginary people created by writers, directors, and actors. In fact, audiences are usually most angry and disappointed when a film or a play fails to manipulate them.

I never convinced my friend that this desire to be emotionally and intellectually swayed was anything but a sickness. And he in turn never managed to prove to me that movies, plays, TV sitcoms, and short stories were anything more than outgrowths of our very natural desire to hear stories.

I thought about our disagreement again the other day as I watched Body Politic’s mediocre production of Lanford Wilson’s charming play Talley’s Folly. I wondered what my friend would think of the play’s long opening monologue, in which one of the characters directly addresses the audience and goes about pretending to demystify the theater-going experience by pointing out the various ways he (with a little help from the sound and light technicians) can make the stage seem like Lebanon, Missouri on a summer’s night (the setting of the story). The “let me show you how I’m going to manipulate you” tack has as much in common with the postmodern pedestrian ironies David Letterman uses to goose up his flagging moments as with the various techniques used by Bertolt Brecht to make his audiences constantly aware that they are indeed watching a play. As I’m sure my friend would agree, this introductory monologue can’t help but make an already highly manipulative play even more manipulative.

Lanford Wilson has admitted in interviews to being disappointed with the fact that Talley’s Folly is “just this incredibly well-made piece of machinery.” Certainly this play lacks the power of Wilson’s less carefully designed works (most notably the very messy Balm in Gilead). Even The Fifth of July, the play to which Talley’s Folly is the sequel, is a less restrained, more chaotic and alive work.

But Wilson’s plot machinery would seem less blatant (and therefore work better) if Body Politic’s production were better, if James McCance were more convincing as Matt Friedman, and if Susan Warren didn’t seem miscast as the object of Matt’s affections, Sally Talley. I certainly don’t remember being as aware of the various devices Wilson uses to pull us into his story when I saw it produced 11 years ago at the Goodman or even 4 years ago at the now-defunct Reflections Theatre.

Neither of these previous productions seemed as intent as the current one on emphasizing all that is innocuous in this exceptionally undaring work. The few dangerous elements in the work–Matt’s dark cynicism about democracy and human nature, Sally Talley’s flirtations with socialism, Wilson’s pointed comments about the class system in America–are all carefully neutralized. McCance’s version of Matt is almost entirely devoid of the undercurrent of bitterness that has made Matt interesting in past productions. Instead, McCance’s Matt is so bland and unobjectionable one wonders exactly why Talley’s family is so upset about her seeing this more or less assimilated Jewish accountant.

Likewise, Susan Warren seems too cheerful and healthy to play the emotionally scarred Sally Talley. She hardly seems the sort of woman to even know who Thorstein Veblen is, much less the sort to try to teach his The Theory of the Leisure Class in Sunday school. And she in no way looks or acts like the black sheep in the family. When she’s called on at the climax of the story to give voice to Sally’s years of bitter disappointment and loneliness, Warren proves to be nothing more than a well-trained, technically proficient actress imitating a character whose motivations and way of looking at the world she in no way understands.

Of course, director Albert Pertalion shares responsibility for the banality of this production. Oh, Pertalion has made certain his actors have learned their lines and given them things to do onstage to fill the time, but neither McCance nor Warren are able to hint at the intense emotional lives bubbling beneath the surface of this pair of misfits. Which is a shame, because without this emotional underpinning, Talley’s Folly becomes the kind of story my friend scorned most: a coldly manipulative bit of empty sentimentality.