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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
Why? When I first saw The Matchmaker listed in the Williamstown Theatre's lineup of Main Stage production, all I could think of was that one little word.
Why bring back a play that has been eclipsed by its musicalized adaption, an adaptation which besides being a super hit literally made the title character synonymous with one star?
Why deal with a play that calls for four set changes for a two week run?
I've now seen the WTF's latest incarnation of Thornton Wilder's comedic farce about a rich business man who employs a matchmaker to find him a wife, not realizing this wily lady is herself looking for a mate. So I can answer my "why?" with "why not?" You see, this Matchmaker shows that it has enough life as a non-musical to provide audiences with a grand old-fashioned straw hat summer good time. As director Nicholas Martin explains it in the program notes, (which, incidentally, are fine theatrical mementos always chuckfull of photos and interesting information), he and the designers conceived this production "as a tribute to the spirit of summer theaters and music halls of the past" and the long-gone "bumptious naivete of the American 1880s" in which Wilder's farce is set.
Not only has Mr. Martin succeeded in achieving his goal, but he has cleverly acknowledged the overwhelming influence of Hello Dolly by giving his production its own musical underpinnings and graciously tipping his hat to the Dolly theme song at the end. Using the playwright's signature presentational style -- which in this play has several of the key players take center stage as narrator/audience confidante -- a small band installed in the orchestra pit introduces the strains of original and source music (by Mark Bennett) an audience might have heard in an 1880s musical evening. I'll admit that during the first act, I found myself waiting for the narrator of the moment to burst into song, as in a regular musical (and specifically, as in Hello Dolly). However, eventually, the music's own charm took hold and won me over to the good sense behind the director's method.
As in last year's Dead End Mr. Martin demands much from his creative team (all of whom worked on that show). Problems with the four separate sets forced cancellation of Wednesday's first performance and still caused a few hiccups at the Thursday matinee I attended. Still, while Mr. Noone's cheery and almost modern sets (except for a flower bedecked proscenium) are a remove from the overstuffed 1880s era we're in, they underscore the sense of something fresh and new. Besides, Michael Krass's smashing costumes, complete with perky hats and bustles, add enough of the required note of authenticity, as does the already mentioned music.
This being a farce, the main burden of its success rests on the actors' shoulders. With a cast of seventeen, there's space to be specific about just a few. To start with the first on stage, Horace Vandergelder, Lewis J. Stadlen reprises the perfect timing displayed earlier this year in Mizlansky/Zelinsky or "Schmucks". He's a crotchety tightwad just waiting to be turned into a pussycat by the woman who "arranges things." As he puts it in the monologue that sets the tone for the show's spirit of adventure: "There's nothing like a woman to bring out the fool in a man. And I'm willing to risk being a little foolish for a little adventure."
Is Andrea Martin's crafty Mrs. Levi as good as Carol Channing? Probably not, but who cares. She's as good as Andrea Martin and that's good enough to land her many priceless bon mots with precision. She plays the famous scene where she feeds Horace food and a bill of goods with the same panache she brought to the Old Lady with the missing buttock in last year's revival of Candide (Ms.Martin could easily do the musical version if she chooses and opportunity beckons).
WTF regular Kate Burton is in top form as Mrs. Molloy, the millinery shop proprietor who'd like to appropriate a well-fixed husband. Unlike so many actors who slip in and out of their accents, she remains true to her Irish brogue throughout. Adam Trese has a good time as Vandergelder's desperate to have a real life chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl. Christopher Fitzgerald and Katie MacNichol are well cast as Cornelius' And Mrs. Molloy's sidekicks, Barnaby Tucker and Minnie Fay. It's Barnaby who in this production gets to sum up Mrs. Levi's idea of what an adventure is all about -- ("The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, 'Oh, now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.' And the sign that something is wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure").
A note on two of the minor parts. Lewis Black as Vandergelder's barber, has so little to do here that he has lots of time to polish up the routines for his next Off-Broadway show (he starred in Black Humor this past season). On the other hand, Marian Seldes has an important small part, as she did in Dead End. Unfortunately, her final act turn as Miss Flora Van Huysen is not quite the bravura performance one expects from this theatrical legend. Her voice somehow didn't carry as well as it should and her bits of funny business were fine but not spectacularly so.
No review of this work would be complete without mention of Wilder's enduring wit. While he handed the funnyest lines to Mrs. Levi, there are enough memorable ones to go around and probably to fill a whole little book of The Wit and Wisdom of Thornton Wilder. Here are a few more samples to whet your appetite:
Mrs. Levi's declares that "Money should be available like rainwater. It should be flowing down among the people, through dressmakers and restaurants and cabmen, setting up a little business here, and furnishing a good time there." But the tightfisted Vandergelder complains "I don't know where money has gone to these days. It's in hiding!"
Cornelius Hackl's daring escape from Yonkers is prompted by the belief that "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 husband-hungry Mrs. Molloy is ready to burst out of the confines of her millinery shop when she declares "I can't stand being suspected of being a wicked woman with nothing to show for it."br>
Vandergelder's newest employee, Malachi Stack, (Michael John McGann) knows a thing or too about wickedness having tried both stealing and drinking. His advice to all is "Never support two bad habits at once -- one vice at a time." He also has this to say about the fine art of eavesdropping: "Everybody should eavesdrop once in a while. There's nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head."
LINKS TO PLAYS MENTIONED
Mizlansky/Zelinsky or "Schmucks"