NY Times Review of The Matchmaker: Adventure as a Cure for Ailing Love Lives

August 29, 2012

By Charles Isherwood
For The New York Times

jpmatch-popup.jpgSTRATFORD, Ontario -- It may take a little while for audiences to stop waiting for the band to strike up during "The Matchmaker," the 1954 farce by Thornton Wilder that has been given a rare and loving revival at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Wilder's confectionary comedy was the most popular of his plays on Broadway, where the original production ran for more than a year. But the fame of "The Matchmaker" has since been eclipsed both by the enduring greatness of Wilder's two masterworks, "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth" -- each a Pulitzer Prize winner -- and by the huge commercial success and undeniable charm of the musical version of the play, "Hello, Dolly!"

When the general-store clerk Cornelius Hackl, played with ebullient innocence by Mike Shara, turns to his younger assistant and urges him, "Get into your Sunday clothes, Barnaby! We're going to New York," your ears perk up for the opening strains of the jaunty song from the musical inspired by this bit of dialogue. And when the milliner Irene Molloy (Laura Condlin) observes that women in New York will be wearing ribbons down their backs this summer, once again you may find yourself inwardly serenading the stage with the reflective tune that accompanies this observation in the musical.

But soon enough the band in your head playing those irresistible Jerry Herman tunes puts down its instruments as the natural delights of Wilder's comedy assert themselves. A throwback to classical forms even when it was new -- Brooks Atkinson, in a jubilant review for The New York Times, frankly admitted that the woolly farce had by then been "dismissed as obsolete" -- "The Matchmaker" shakes off the air of quaint antiquity that hovers at its edges when the ingenious mechanics of Wilder's plot shift into high gear: young men dive under tables and into closets, while flustered young women attempting to hide them dither and stammer and scramble.

The play's history dovetails with that of the Stratford festival. It was at the suggestion of Tyrone Guthrie, the festival's first artistic director, that Wilder decided to take another look at "The Merchant of Yonkers," a play that had flopped on Broadway in 1938 under the heavy hand of Max Reinhardt. Guthrie invited Wilder to Stratford to work on revisions, and Guthrie's production of the resulting play, rechristened "The Matchmaker," went on to debut at the Edinburgh Festival before taking London and then New York by storm, with Ruth Gordon as the title character, Dolly Levi, giving a performance described by Atkinson as "epochally funny."

With the permission of the Wilder estate, Chris Abraham, the director of Stratford's production, has interpolated some small bits from "The Merchant of Yonkers" and Guthrie's prompt script into the published text. These minor emendations are not particularly significant, though I did wonder if they extended the play's running time to its detriment. A farce that stretches to 2 hours 40 minutes is in danger of collapsing like an ill-cooked soufflé.

Mr. Abraham's production builds slowly in the opening scene and wraps up in a similarly slightly dilatory fashion, with a scene that will be entirely new to those who know the material only from "Hello, Dolly!" But the production bustles along merrily for most of the evening, as the romantic shenanigans orchestrated by Dolly (Seana McKenna) arrange themselves into satisfying patterns culminating in two blissfully silly scenes of knockabout comedy -- one in Irene Molloy's hat shop and the other at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant -- where all the play's characters find themselves frantically at odds.

The amiably interfering Dolly, whose role in the play is less dominant than in the musical, is given a pert, appealingly brisk interpretation by Ms. McKenna, a festival mainstay often seen in classical roles. (Last season she played Richard III.) It's nice to see Ms. McKenna at such ease in the frothier waters of farce. Tom McCamus, his bristles of whiskers amusingly signifying his prickly personality, plays the man Dolly's commissioned to find a wife for: the wealthy shopkeeper Horace Vandergelder, a widower determined to take a new wife without going to any great expenditure, emotional or monetary.

As the 17-year-old shop apprentice Barnaby Tucker, Josh Epstein exudes an awe-struck wonder as he finds himself tearing through the wild streets of New York City in the throes of the "adventure" he and Cornelius are determined to experience, if only just this once in their lives. Their romantic counterparts -- Ms. Condlin as Irene and Andrea Runge as her squealing assistant, Minnie Fay -- bring energy and spirit.

Geraint Wyn Davies, a veteran actor I'm always happy to see at Stratford, plays Malachi Stack, a cheerful drifter looking for work who finds himself caught in the confusion, and Mr. Davies infuses his scenes with sly doses of Irish wit. The other major role excised from "Hello, Dolly!" is Miss Flora Van Huysen (Nora McLellan, hamming merrily), the aunt of Horace's niece Ermengarde (Cara Ricketts). Flora's home is where the play's somewhat overelaborate final scene takes place.

Designed as an affectionate tribute to the classical models of farce, "The Matchmaker" is nonetheless gently inflected with the warm humanity and wry wisdom that characterized much of Wilder's writing. Among America's great playwrights he was perhaps the most down to earth, the most keenly attuned to the humble but sustaining pleasures of life, as well as its unavoidable sorrows. All the major characters in "The Matchmaker" address the audience directly, and some of their reflections have surprisingly sharp relevance in today's economic climate.

In Dolly's intimate address to her dead husband, Ephraim Levi, in which she tells him (and us) her reasons for remarrying, she observes that happiness requires a little money. "Not much, but a little," she says. "The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous, and can shatter the world; and the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, and that, also, can shatter the world." Words worth pondering, Dolly, at a time when the uneven distribution of wealth has become a major topic of global import.

Nor does Dolly alone bring us piquant observations on the matter of money. The evening's standout performance comes from Mr. Shara as a movingly human but boisterously funny Cornelius, who tells Barnaby in the play's first scene that they had better grab their chance at adventure while they can, before they ossify into facsimiles of their dour, money-obsessed employer:

"Listen, everybody thinks when he gets rich he'll be a different kind of rich person from the rich people he sees around him. Later on he finds out there's only one kind of rich person. And he's it."

The Matchmaker

By Thornton Wilder; directed by Chris Abraham; designed by Santo Loquasto; lighting by Michael Walton; sound by Thomas Ryder Payne; choreography by Jane Johanson; dramaturges, Robert Blacker and Jacob Gallagher-Ross; stunt coordinator, Daniel Levinson; production stage manager, Margaret Palmer; technical director, Jeff Scollon. Presented by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Des McAnuff, artistic director. At the Festival Theater, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario; (800) 567-1600; stratfordshakespearefestival.com. Through Oct. 27. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

WITH: Tom McCamus (Horace Vandergelder), Cara Richetts (Ermengarde), Skye Brandon (Ambrose Kemper), John Vickery (Joe Scanlon/Rudolph/Cabman), Chick Reid (Gertrude/Cook), Mike Shara (Cornelius Hackl), Josh Epstein (Barnaby Tucker), Geraint Wyn Davies (Malachi Stack), Seana McKenna (Dolly Gallagher Levi), Laura Condlin (Irene Molloy), Andrea Runge (Minnie Fay), Victory Dolhai (August), Robert King (Gypsy Musician) and Nora McLellan (Miss Flora Van Huysen).

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