And beautiful it is. In the Kansas City Actors Theatre's rewarding production, that boathouse is a junk-shop marvel, both filigreed and weather-beaten, thick with nets and buckets. The sawing of the crickets, the aquamarine moonlight, Wilson's lyrical dialogue we hear of "upside-down trees with the shaky moon in the water" all perfectly evoke a night on the river. That the boathouse is neglected by the family that has inherited it should be no surprise. Caught up in their lives and their business, fighting off the union at the garment factory, the Talley family has no time for rustic beauty.
What might surprise is Kansas City's great luck. This is the first in Missouri playwright Lanford Wilson's trilogy concerning the Talley family of Lebanon; the Kansas City Actors Theatre, itself dedicated to the wonderfully impractical, will produce all three of the plays throughout the summer.
The first show is the lightest, starting breezily and gathering to a swoon. But it's not without its edges. Set in real time and taking place entirely in that boathouse, Talley's Folly charts each step of a courtship waltz that as we are informed in the suitor's marvelous opening speech will take up exactly 97 minutes of our time. On Independence Day, 1944, a year after a chance meeting resulted in a seven-day romance, Matt Friedman (David Fritts), a Lithuanian Jew toiling as a St. Louis accountant, returns to the Ozark home of Sally Talley (Jessiee Datino), a cornfed woman of 31 years, liberal beliefs and uncertain prospects. Matt's project is marriage; Sally's is well, that's for the play to reveal.
After Sally's Jew-hating family tries to run him off, Matt waits her out in that wreck of a boathouse, where his lively wooing entails jokes, imitations (of that flat Missouri dialect as well as Bogart and Groucho), and even a song or two. Eventually, he's left with nothing save soul-baring honesty. Fritts embodies Matt with energy and intelligence, giving us a man both scared of and struck by the Missouri in which he's found himself. When he gazes out at the river and asks Sally what it is like to live amid such beauty, he's every bit as moving as when he narrates his tragic personal history, a Europe-spanning nightmare that set eyes tearing up all along my row. Fritts' accent seems to hail from one or two countries more than it should, but he's got the soul right.
Sally meets his continental wit with Midwestern stubbornness. At first, she's not just reticent with him she demands that he leave. As Matt's siege wears on, though, and they become honest with each other, Datino is pushed into harrowing emotional terrain. This she masters: She trembles, her face tender, her voice raw, until finally she bursts, crying what seem like real tears. At the climax, both she and the audience are all scraped out. This young actress has great promise; here's hoping a full summer of this doesn't kill her.
The show's not perfect. For the first half hour or so, we believe in the characters without always believing what's taking shape between them. We sense the subtle shifts of attitude that are key to a play like this, but we don't always understand them. Wilson's language delights, though. His themes tickle the brain, and by the time the characters (and actors) begin truly connecting, those early concerns have drifted far downriver. More than any other theatrical company in town, the Kansas City Actors Theatre is dedicated first and foremost to plays themselves: high-quality plays, presented with more smarts than flash by craftspeople unafraid of the literary. Something similar can be said in praise of the cabaret pros at Quality Hill Playhouse, whose singers and musicians labor in egoless thrall to the song. Here's a place where a leading lady like Alison Sneegas Borberg wielder of a silvery, operatic voice that can make your feet curl up like the witch's beneath Dorothy's house reins it in to do comedy numbers.
At which she's great.
The gist of QHP's Side by Side by Sondheim is pretty obvious: a crash course through the oeuvre of one of the few people alive who actually has a right to call his work an oeuvre. This revue hasn't been updated since 1976, meaning we give up Sondheim's more recent abstractions (Into the Woods, Assassins) in favor of crowd-pleasers and obscurities from his glittering youth: Follies, A Little Night Music and Company, a show I thought I hated but now, thanks to Borberg and Ken Remmert's moving and funny take on "Barcelona," I merely detest.
Highlights stud the show. Amy Coady revels in the dirty jokes of "I Never Do Anything Twice" and the roof-raising boasts of "I'm Still Here." Remmert, who so recently, as The Nerd, made do with some of theater's dumbest words, seems effortless when handed the theater's smartest. Director Rick Truman has them all beaming, making eye contact and enunciating each of Sondheim's 12 jillion syllables. Master of ceremonies and pianist J. Kent Barnhart is joined by MC and pianist Molly Jessup, who splits the hosting duties. Though I missed some of Barnhart's dry storytelling, Jessup's smoky, Marcia Wallace croak handily made up for it.
And certainly, hearing a rhyme like personable/workin' a bull is worth the price all by itself.