*TALLEY'S FOLLY, by Lanford Wilson, directed by P.J. Hammond, with Paul Babiak and Tabitha Keast. Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley). Runs to November 12, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinee Sunday 3 pm. $15, Wednesday two-for-one, Sunday pwyc. 364-4170. Rating: NNNN
At the start of Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winner Talley's Folly, a character compares the action we're about to see to a waltz. Happily, in the Alumnae Theatre's season opener, there is indeed some fancy footwork.
Set in 1944 in small-town Missouri, the two-character piece focuses on the unconventional wooing of the skittish Sally Talley (Tabitha Keast) by the determined accountant Matt Friedman (Paul Babiak), based on a brief courtship the previous summer. Each has tightly held secrets, and each grudgingly cajoles the mysteries out of the other.
Although there are occasional brushes with the saccharine under director P.J. Hammond, Babiak and Keast walk a careful line in the romantic comedy, rarely stepping into manipulative melodrama or predictable bathos. Keast's Sally keeps releasing smokescreens to fend off Matt's advances and questions, while Babiak's flirtatious, comic turns hide Matt's own sadness. Performing in the intimacy of the Studio Theatre, the actors adeptly draw the audience into the lives of this couple, who both want and fear intimacy.
They ride Wilson's rhythms and silences expertly, allowing the characters' emotional highs and lows to flow naturally. Most importantly, they allow the fondness between Matt and Sally to seep through even in their sharpest arguments. The warmth the audience feels at the show's end is earned, not taken for granted.