Well, hello, Thornton. The underlying amiability of the characters in Our Town, the 1938 play for which Thornton Wilder received a Pulitzer Prize, has had a lot to do with its warm reception over the years. That same year he staged a lighthearted prototype of what would later become The Matchmaker and eventually the beloved musical Hello, Dolly!
The oh-so American Depression-era optimism of the playwright, raised to nearly patriotic obligation, is on fond tongue-in-cheek display in 2nd Story Theatre's production of The Matchmaker (through September 11).
Worked dawn to dusk by a slave-driving boss? Don't lose your plucky spirit and this too shall pass. Held away from true love by the cruel hand of economic circumstance? Strive on and wedding bells will soon ring.
Horace Vandergelder (Bob Colonna) is a curmudgeonly 60-year-old feed store owner who has just made his first million through gimlet-eyed business acumen and dedicated penny-pinching. He refuses to allow his callow niece Ermengarde (Marilyn Botvin) to marry the hot-tempered young artist she is in love with, Ambrose Kember (Will Jamieson), because he is not prosperous. (Ambrose accuses her of having "the soul of the field mouse" because she won't elope.)
Nevertheless, the widowed Vandergelder himself would like to marry, for convenience. "Marriage," he observes, "is a bribe to convince a housekeeper that she is a householder." He has his eyes on a widowed millinery shop owner, Irene Molloy (Rachel Morris). However, the clever matchmaker who is ostensibly helping him in this pursuit, Dolly Levi (Isabel O'Donnell), subverts his ambitions because she has targeted the wealthy shopkeeper for herself. Dolly is tired of hustling to make ends meet, handing out business cards that advertise skills as various as mandolin construction and varicose veins reduction.
Into the fray comes his overworked employee Cornelius Hackl (Jay Bragan), who has just been "promoted" from de facto chief clerk to official chief clerk, in lieu of a raise. In frustration, the underling schemes to close the shop on a pretext while the boss is in New York City on a matrimonial foray. Cornelius recruits his teenaged assistant, Barnaby Tucker (Walter Perez), to go down to the city themselves in pursuit of adventure. Among their ambitions is to have a good meal, nearly get arrested, and perhaps even kiss a girl. Needless to say, their wishes are the playwright's command.
There are plenty of knockabout farce opportunities, which director Ed Shea exploits with hand-rubbing glee. Comical coincidences abound, as Cornelius and Barnaby find themselves one step ahead of their irascible boss at both the millinery shop and a posh restaurant. (Cornelius has pretended to be a rich, madcap socialite, you see.) There are no slammed doors in this farce, but rather slammed hat-shop boxes in which the frightened clerks hide.
The character Cornelius is as much at the heart of the play as is Dolly, and Bragan's bright-eyed portrayal of him is the most delightful performance here. Not that he doesn't have competition. Except for the mewling niece, the women in this play are heroine-strong. O'Donnell's Dolly is unflaggingly indomitable (though we could use a glimpse of her vulnerability). Morris gives Irene a good slug of feisty Irish temperament, and as her young assistant Minnie Fay, Gabby Sherba is an earnest apprentice. A special treat is Marg Capelli as Flora Van Huysen, an eccentric matron, played here as unabashedly blind. (Pardon me, but I read the wandering fire-engine-red lipstick as a token of optimistic self-assertiveness.)
This comedy wears its kindly didactic intentions like a waving banner, which is forgiven because it also wears its theatrical artifice like a commedia dell'arte mask. The audience is repeatedly addressed. Most main characters get to speechify at us, explaining how they look at life and other lifers. Vandergelder asserts: "Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are fools, and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion." Vandergelder's new assistant, Malachi Stack (Walter Cotter), explains how he's learned to dedicate himself to a single bad habit, whiskey, rather than disperse his efforts — lecherous misers and such give vice a bad name, he explains.
Thornton Wilder's third play, The Merchant of Yonkers: A Farce In Four Acts, was based on a 19th-century Viennese farce. Staged in 1938, it flopped. Rewritten and produced as The Matchmaker in 1955, it did fine. In 1964 its film adaptation, Hello, Dolly! (which Wilder had no authorial hand in), did fabulously well. With this production, 2nd Story Theatre well conveys the whistling-in-the-dark gaiety of Wilder's intentions in fine style.
Issue Date: August 5 - 11, 2005
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